These are not the interns you are seeking
These are not the interns you are seeking

Believe it or not, harassment against summer interns isn’t directly prohibited under Connecticut law.  (But treating them like employees without paying them is against the law.)

This is not, however, a column about the best ways to harass your interns.  Indeed, regardless of the law, it’s bad in so many ways.  (And the CHRO has taken the position — yet to be tested in courts — that interns are already covered.)

But all that is about to change. Earlier this week, the Connecticut General Assembly passed legislation (Senate Bill 428) that would make it illegal to do so and allow those interns to file claims not only with the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights & Opportunities but ultimately in Superior Court too.

The bill, which awaits the Governor’s signature, would go into effect October 1, 2015 and has several important aspects that employers should be aware of now.  The bill follows a trend in California, New York, and other states to protect interns more explicitly under the law.

So, who IS an intern?

An intern is defined as someone who performs work for an employer for the purpose of training, provided:

  1. the employer is not committed to hire the person performing the work at the conclusion of the training period;
  2. the employer and the person performing the work agree that the person performing the work is not entitled to wages for the work performed; and
  3. the work performed meets five conditions.

Those five conditions are that the work:

  • supplements training given in an educational environment that may enhance the employability of the person;
  • provides experience for the benefit of the person;
  • does not displace any employee of the employer;
  • is performed under the supervision of the employer or an employee of the employer; and
  • provides no immediate advantage to the employer providing the training and may occasionally impede the operations of the employer; and

If you’ve seen some or most of these factors before, that’s because the U.S. Department of Labor has outlined something similar in its definition of interns.

And what exactly is prohibited?

Well, for most part, the things that are prohibited against employees are prohibited against interns.

For example, the bill prohibits discrimination based on an intern’s race, color, religious creed, age, sex, gender identity or expression, sexual orientation, marital status, national origin, ancestry, present or past history of mental disability, intellectual disability, learning disability or physical disability, including, but not limited to, blindness. The bill’s prohibition covers hiring, firing, and advertising internships.

It also prohibits sexual harassment against interns.

The bill also bans an employer from retaliating against an intern for filing a complaint or testifying in a proceeding about a discrimination complaint.

For employers, this new law (when signed by the governor) should lead to a few steps being taken:

1) Amend your policies and procedures to cover interns. That includes your anti-harassment policies.

2) Educate your managers and your interns on what is appropriate in the workplace.  It is particularly important for the interns who may have had little workplace experiences before this.

3) If you have insurance, ask your insurer whether it will cover claims made by interns (who are not, by the way, defined as employees).

4) Consider the risk factors of continuing an internship program.  If these interns can now bring suit against your company, I have no doubt that some companies may say that the risk is too high.

There are still unanswered questions about this. If an unpaid intern gets “fired”, what are his or her damages? There is no back pay so then what? Reinstatement? And if the employer has the right not to hire the person after the training period, then what?

Fortunately, this bill seems to be in search of a problem that doesn’t seem particularly rampant.  In the testimony in support of the bill, not a single example of intern discrimination or harassment was identified, even by the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights & Opportunities.

That said, stay tuned for more as the particulars of this bill get incorporated into everyday practice.