Connecticut Extends Workplace Harassment and Discrimination Protections to Unpaid Interns

On June 22, 2015, Connecticut Governor Dannel P. Malloy signed into law a new statute that extends workplace harassment, discrimination and retaliation protection to unpaid interns.  Historically, it was unclear whether an individual working as an unpaid intern was protected from workplace discrimination or harassment. As a result of the enactment of Public Act 15-56, on October 1, 2015, unpaid interns in Connecticut will be provided the same protections as employees covered by the Connecticut Fair Employment Practices Act (“CFEPA”).

Which Employers are Covered?

The coverage of Public Act 15-56 is expansive. The new statute defines “Employer” as “any person engaged in business in the state, including the state and any political subdivision thereof, that provides a position for an intern” and defines “Person” as “one or more individuals, partnerships, associations, corporations, limited liability companies, business trusts, legal representatives or any organized group of persons.” The statute does not require a minimum number of employees and anyone conducting business in Connecticut is covered.

Who is an “Intern”?

While the definition of “Employer” under the Act is expansive, the statute’s definition of “Intern” is more circumscribed.  The law defines “Intern” as “an individual who performs work for an employer for the purpose of training,” and imposes specific conditions that must be satisfied before the position qualifies as an internship covered by the new law. Those requirements are:

  1. the employer is not committed to hire the individual performing the work at the conclusion of the training period;
  2. the employer and the individual performing the work agree that the individual performing the work is not entitled to wages for the work performed; and,
  3. the work performed
  1. supplements training given in an educational environment that may enhance the employability of the individual,
  2. provides experience for the benefit of the individual,
  3. does not displace any employee of the employer,
  4. is performed under the supervision of the employer or an employee of the employer, and
  5. provides no immediate advantage to the employer providing the training and may occasionally impede the operations of the employer

If any of these criteria is not met, the individual is not an “Intern” under the new statue.

While most of the language is fairly straightforward, the phrases “supplements training given in an educational environment that may enhance the employability of the individual” and “provides no immediate advantage to the employer” are potentially problematic.  Presumably, these provisions should distinguish interns from other volunteer workers.  However, given the Act’s expansive coverage, its remedial purpose, and its unanimous support in the legislature, employers should prudentially assume the new law’s protections may be interpreted to apply to all unpaid workers.

Scope of Protection

Public Act 15-56 extends the same discrimination and harassment prohibitions reflected in the CFEPA to interns.  The Act includes precisely the same protected classes: “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.”  It also prohibits the same discrimination: refusal to hire, discharge, or otherwise discriminate in terms, conditions or privileges of service to the employer. Sexual harassment also echoes the definition under the CFEPA: “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors or any other conduct of a sexual nature when (A) submission to such conduct is made either explicitly or implicitly a term or condition of an intern's internship; (B) submission to or rejection of such conduct by an intern or an individual seeking an internship is used as the basis for workplace decisions affecting such intern or individual; or (C) such conduct has the purpose or effect of substantially interfering with an intern's work performance or creating an intimidating, hostile or offensive working environment.  The new law also includes a comparable anti-retaliation provision barring discharge or any other discrimination because the “intern has opposed any discriminatory employment practice or because such intern has filed a complaint or testified or assisted in any proceeding.” Also consistent with CFEPA, the Act provides an exception for bona fide occupational qualifications or needs. In this regard, the Act is clear. If a paid employee is protected from the objectionable conduct in question, so is an unpaid intern.

Connecticut CHRO Enforcement

Public Act 15-56 will be added to the list of discriminatory practices under Section 46a-51(8) of the Human Rights and Opportunities provisions. Interns may file charges of discrimination with the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities under Section 46a-82.  Those charges will be handled according to the provisions of 46a-83 et seq, and an aggrieved party may thereafter pursue a lawsuit in court under Section 46a-100 et seq. Interns will thus be able to pursue the same types of damages as aggrieved employees.

What This Means for Employers

Any individual or employer working with an unpaid intern or considering an internship program should be mindful that going forward interns will be provided the same protections as paid employees. Given the historical lack of clarity about which unpaid workers were protected from discrimination and harassment, employers should also train supervisors regarding the expansion of these protections.

Information contained in this publication is intended for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice or opinion, nor is it a substitute for the professional judgment of an attorney.