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Unpaid interns in NYC protected from sexual harassment

Sexual harassment remains a problem in workplaces all across the United States, New York included. The behavior exacts an emotional toll on its victims. Although employed workers, both full- and part-time, are protected by law from sexual harassment in the workplace, unpaid interns have not been for decades.

The legislative amendment to New York City's Human Rights Law won approval by the New York City Council in late March and has been made law. It has extended civil rights and sexual harassment protection to unpaid interns anywhere in the city.

The action followed the 2009 case of an unpaid intern Syracuse University intern who was allegedly sexually harassed by a superior at the Phoenix Media Group in his hotel room when he supposedly wanted to discuss her potential as a full-time employee. A New York judge threw out the intern's lawsuit saying she could not assert the claim because she was not a paid employee.

The city councilman who sponsored the bill said that interns have an important role in the workforce and should be granted the same rights as paid employees.

Some supporters of the bill are nonetheless criticizing its narrow definition of an intern and arguing that the bill's language might force some interns to choose between compensation or legal protection.

From unwanted physical advances to lewd comments to sexually provocative and otherwise offensive and inappropriate behavior by a superior or coworker, sexual harassment can be emotionally devastating to victims.

Fortunately, federal employment law safeguards employees against workplace sexual harassment and discrimination. Any sexual harassment incident that results in a person's firing or disciplinary action could create legal trouble for an employer.

Source: The Stylus, "Unpaid interns given new workplace rights," Susan Antilla, April 1, 2014

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