The New York City Council unanimously passed a bill in late March 2014 amending the New York City Human Rights Law (NYCHRL) to extend the anti-discrimination provisions of the law to unpaid interns. A 2013 federal court case, in which an unpaid intern filed suit for sexual harassment and hostile work environment, inspired the bill. The court dismissed the intern’s claims because city and state law, it found, do not apply to interns. Wang v. Phoenix Satellite Television US, No. 1:13-cv-00218, mem. order (S.D.N.Y., Oct. 3, 2013).
The plaintiff in Wang was a graduate student in journalism at Syracuse University in December 2009 when she began working as an unpaid intern for the American subsidiary of Phoenix Media Group, a television news company based in Hong Kong. She viewed the internship as a training opportunity, with the possibility of a full-time job after she graduated. She reported to the Washington DC bureau chief, who also oversaw operations in New York.
While the bureau chief was in New York one night in January 2010, she and several employees met him at a restaurant. She alleged in her lawsuit that he asked her to stay after the meal to discuss job prospects, then invited her back to his hotel. He allegedly made sexual comments that made her uncomfortable, but she felt that she could not refuse his invitation to go to his room because he was her boss. Once they were alone, he allegedly threw his arms around her, groped her, and attempted to kiss her. She broke free of him and left the hotel. After that, she claims, he ceased to express any interest in hiring her.