Q: I am business owner who for years has provided unpaid internships to college students looking to gain experience in the work force. I have only recently learned that wage and hour laws may require me to pay these interns for their services. Now I am wondering whether having interns working at my company increases my exposure to possible claims of harassment in the workplace. Your answer will help me with my insurance decisions and possible employee training.
A: "Obviously, when it comes to training employees and supervisors about what constitutes harassment in the workplace, the more you can provide the better off you will be in the long run. Nevertheless, your question is, essentially, “Can my company or employees be liable if an intern is harassed by one of my employees?” Understanding that no one wants harassment in their business environment, the short answer to your questions is: No. Under Federal, state and New York City laws, an employee could not maintain a viable claim against your business or its employees.
In a recent decision in Federal District Court in Manhattan captioned Wang v. Phoenix Satellite Television US, Inc. 13 Civ. 218 (S.D.N.Y. October 3, 2013) the Court considered the claim by a plaintiff who alleged that she was sexually harassed and propositioned by a supervisor during the course of her unpaid internship. She did not sue under Federal law but rather under the New York State Human Rights Law, N.Y. Exec. L. § 290 et. seq. (“NYHRL”) and New York City Human Rights Laws N.Y. City Admin. Code § 8-101 et seq. (NYCHRL”).
The Court remarked from the outset that an unpaid intern is not an employee under the federal statutes that protect employees from discrimination in the workplace known as Title VII. In addition, the Court noted that New York courts have held that the protections afforded to individuals under the NYHRL do not apply to unpaid positions.