It’s been a banner year for interns in New York hoping to get through their temporary jobs un-groped. Earlier this year, Mayor Bill de Blasio signed into law a bill sponsored by City Council member James Vacca saying that unpaid interns have the right to sue if they’re sexually harassed or otherwise discriminated against at work. Yesterday, State Senator Liz Krueger announced that the Senate had passed a similar bill she sponsored there, one that makes it illegal to subject interns to any “unwelcome harassment.” A companion bill passed the Assembly earlier this week; it’ll go to Governor Andrew Cuomo to be signed into law soon.
Krueger’s bill stipulates that it’s illegal for employers of unpaid interns to “engage in unwelcome sexual advances,” and just in case that wasn’t clear enough, it outlines exactly what those are.
Here’s the relevant portion of the bill:
3. It shall be an unlawful discriminatory practice for an employer to:
A. Engage in unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, or other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature to an intern when:
(1) Submission to such conduct is made either explicitly or implicitly a term or condition of the intern’s employment;
(2) Submission to or rejection of such conduct by the intern is used as the basis for employment decisions affecting such intern; or
(3) Such conduct has the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with the intern’s work performance by creating an intimidating, hostile or offensive working environment, or;
B. Subject an intern to unwelcome harassment based on age, sex, race, creed, color, sexual orientation, military status, disability, predisposing genetic characteristics, marital status, domestic violence victim status, or national origin, where such harassment has the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with the intern’s work performance by creating an intimidating, hostile or offensive working environment.
The full text is available here.
Both the city and state legislation were written in response to the case of Lihuan Wang, a Syracuse University graduate who in 2009, when she was 22, took an unpaid intern gig at the New York office of Phoenix Satellite Television, a Chinese-language news station. Wang alleged in a 2013 lawsuit that her supervisor there, Zhengzhu Liu, lured Wang and other interns to a hotel room under the guise of work, then groped, kissed, and attempted to rape them. Wang’s suit says that Liu “boasted of his connections to Phoenix’s Hong Kong headquarters” and explicitly promised career advancement and even green cards to female employees and interns.
Understandably, Wang only stayed at that internship for a month. When she decided to file a lawsuit against Liu and Phoenix in 2013, it was thrown out of court when Judge Kevin Castel ruled that unpaid interns weren’t employees and thus not protected by the New York City Commission on Human Rights’ comprehensive rules against sexual harassment.
“With the growing prevalence of unpaid internships and the extreme pressure on young people to build up resumes and references in a tough economy, the law needs to change to protect this extremely vulnerable class of workers,” Senator Krueger is quoted as saying in a press release. “This week, we’ve taken decisive action to close this gap in our laws, protect interns, and ensure those who discriminate against or sexually harass interns are accountable under the law.”
While Krueger’s press release doesn’t make mention of this, interns are especially imperiled by her colleagues over at the state Assembly, whose august elected officials just cannot seem to stop sexually harassing people in the most bizarre and incorrigible ways imaginable. Former Assemblyman Vito J. Lopez resigned in May of last year after he was accused of sexually harassing several female staffers. The women were allegedly made to massage him, pressured to go to hotels with him, and, per the Daily News “forced to touch the tumors on his neck.”
Two of Lopez’s former staffers, Chloe Rivera and Victoria Burhans, are also suing Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who they say “created a de facto policy or custom in which sexual harassment by senior officials . . . was tolerated or condoned.”
Silver is also under fire for his handling of sexual harassment allegations against Assemblyman Micah Kellner, who was first accused of harassing an intern in 2009. Silver didn’t begin an investigation until four years later. In the meantime, Assemblyman Dennis Gabryszak had to resign in January, after a number of his former female employees came forward with fairly outrageous tales of creepiness, including that time Gabryszak sent one of them a video of himself pretending to receive fellatio in a toilet .
Just last week, though, Silver annonunced he was implementing harsh sanctions against Kellner, shutting down all of his offices, reducing his budget to zero and taking away all his staffers. An independent investigator appointed by the Assembly in the wake of the original harassment allegations found that Kellner was still employing an intern, although he was no longer allowed to have them, and that he’d “continued to engage in inappropriate sexual conduct towards two additional female staffers,” DNAInfo reported. (Kellner issued a statement denying the allegations, saying they were Silver’s retaliation for Kellner fighting back against the original sexual harassment claims by filing an appeal with the Assembly’s Ethics Committee.)
The new sexual harassment laws will certainly give interns some recourse if they find themselves targeted at work. In the meantime, interns — especially if you’re taking a summer gig in the handsy environs of the Assembly — maybe pack some pepper spray.