Legislation filed to protect unpaid interns in NJ
Interns in New Jersey could soon have more rights under legislation being pushed by nearly a dozen state lawmakers.
Under current New Jersey law, unpaid interns are banned from suing a company for discrimination or sexual harassment because they are not technically employees. But a new bill would extend New Jersey worker protections to unpaid interns by amending three state statues: the Law Against Discrimination, the Worker Freedom From Employer Intimidation Act and the Conscientious Employee Protection Act.
"Once interns are in the door it seems to me they deserve every bit as much the protections that employees receive," said Assemblyman Jay Webber (R-Parsippany), one of the bill's primary sponsors.
Oregon is the only state that already has such a law, and New York City has enacted similar legislation.
Members of the business community are against the measure though. During testimony before the Assembly Labor Committee on Jan. 15, business leaders said everyone deserves protections, but they are concerned the legislation is too broad and could lead to frivolous lawsuits and other unintended consequences.
"We want to make sure that we don't create added liability that would sort of chill their (employers) willingness to bring interns into the workplace versus encouraging them to have more interns in the workplace," said Christine Stearns, vice president of Health and Legal Affairs with the New Jersey Business and Industry Association.
Despite agreeing the legislation could be too broad, Webber is in favor of the bill and addressed the question of liability.
"If an intern doesn't really know what they're talking about and says, 'Oh you're doing something illegal,' and blows the whistle and the internship is terminated, and they really didn't know what they were talking about - the case is going nowhere," Webber said.
The case that brought the issue to light was heard in October of 2013 when a federal district judge ruled that a Syracuse University student engaged in an internship with a New York company could not bring a sexual harassment lawsuit against her boss because she was unpaid and did not have the status of an employee.
"This case exposed a gap in worker protection laws that likely exist in other states across the country," said Sen. Nia Gill (D-Montclair), the bill's primary sponsor in the Senate, in an emailed statement on Jan. 15. "Essentially it found that unpaid interns, many of whom are working to gain experience or academic credit as they prepare for a career, are not provided the same legal protections as those who are paid."
The bill, referred to as the "New Jersey Intern Protection Act," was approved on Jan. 15 by the Assembly Labor Committee and now awaits a vote in the full Assembly. The bill was approved by the full Senate in June 2014.