Take Action to End Intern Wage Theft and Discrimination in New York City

Mayor Bill de Blasio

Every year thousands of young people show up at their jobs in New York City, committed to working hard and learning the skills necessary to advance careers in the city’s many vibrant industries. Yet many find themselves shut out of opportunity, exploited and vulnerable to sexual harassment and other forms of discrimination. They are unpaid interns—on the losing end of an exploitative practice.

Unpaid internships have become a cover for billions of dollars of wage theft annually. Contrary to popular belief, in many industries the vast majority of unpaid interns are not students or trainees at all, but rather ordinary workers accepting unpaid work as the “new normal” at the bottom of the career ladder. Forces that contribute to this phenomenon include:

  • a historically challenging job market for young adults
  • the brazenness with which employers substitute paying jobs with internships in violation of federal and state labor law
  • the under-enforcement of existing laws by under-resourced agencies
  • the complicity of universities, whose policies fail to account for the effect of unpaid internships on the labor market and often facilitate violation of labor laws
  • the unwitting endorsement of the practice by well-meaning policy makers and employers who themselves may comply with the law but fail to see how this unregulated term has amounted to a blank check in the form of free labor

Mr. Mayor, let’s make New York City the first city in the United States to eliminate unpaid internship wage theft and begin creating a school-to-work transition that reduces income inequality, improves prospects for a truly diverse and representative workforce, respects the dignity of work and the value of labor, and shows the rest of the country that both employers and employees CAN benefit from a higher standard. To that end, we make the following calls to action:

  1. New York City’s offices and agencies, the companies it contracts, and the organizations engaging city and city-financed resources should cease hiring unpaid interns or other unpaid workers. Everyone working for the City of New York, its contractors, and city-supported organizations should be paid at least a living wage.
  2. New York City should take affirmative steps to improve compliance with current labor laws and to crack down on widespread violation of both the federal 6-point trainee test and New York State’s stricter point test—the standards by which a bona fide trainee is deemed not an employee.
  3. New York City should work with Albany to implement a higher legal standard, improving both opportunity and protections for thousands of New York City workers who are currently excluded from full participation in the economy. New York Labor Law should be amended to recognize interns as employees, effectively ending unpaid internships as the practice is currently conducted by requiring employers to pay wages to all interns. New York Human Rights Law should be amended to extend sexual harassment and other anti-discrimination protections to all interns, volunteers, and anybody at worksites otherwise not covered by their status as employees—notwithstanding the recent partial extension of such protections to some unpaid interns by New York City Council bill Intro 173-A, passed March 26.

To: Mayor Bill de Blasio
From: [Your Name]

Every year thousands of young people show up at their jobs in New York City, committed to working hard and learning the skills necessary to advance careers in the city’s many vibrant industries. Yet many find themselves shut out of opportunity, exploited and vulnerable to sexual harassment and other forms of discrimination. They are unpaid interns—on the losing end of an exploitative practice. Unpaid internships have become a cover for billions of dollars of wage theft annually. Contrary to popular belief, in many industries the vast majority of unpaid interns are not students or trainees at all, but rather ordinary workers accepting unpaid work as the “new normal” at the bottom of the career ladder. Forces that contribute to this phenomenon include: - a historically challenging job market for young adults - the brazenness with which employers substitute paying jobs with internships in violation of federal and state labor law the under-enforcement of existing laws by under-resourced agencies - the complicity of universities, whose policies fail to account for the effect of unpaid internships on the labor market and often facilitate violation of labor laws - the unwitting endorsement of the practice by well-meaning policy makers and employers who themselves may comply with the law but fail to see how this unregulated term has amounted to a blank check in the form of free labor Mr. Mayor, let’s make New York City the first city in the United States to eliminate unpaid internship wage theft and begin creating a school-to-work transition that reduces income inequality, improves prospects for a truly diverse and representative workforce, respects the dignity of work and the value of labor, and shows the rest of the country that both employers and employees CAN benefit from a higher standard. To that end, we make the following calls to action: 1. New York City’s offices and agencies, the companies it contracts, and the organizations engaging city and city-financed resources should cease hiring unpaid interns or other unpaid workers. Everyone working for the City of New York, its contractors, and city-supported organizations should be paid at least a living wage. 2. New York City should take affirmative steps to improve compliance with current labor laws and to crack down on widespread violation of both the federal 6-point trainee test and New York State’s stricter point test—the standards by which a bona fide trainee is deemed not an employee. 3. New York City should work with Albany to implement a higher legal standard, improving both opportunity and protections for thousands of New York City workers who are currently excluded from full participation in the economy. New York Labor Law should be amended to recognize interns as employees, effectively ending unpaid internships as the practice is currently conducted by requiring employers to pay wages to all interns. New York Human Rights Law should be amended to extend sexual harassment and other anti-discrimination protections to all interns, volunteers, and anybody at worksites otherwise not covered by their status as employees—notwithstanding the recent partial extension of such protections to some unpaid interns by New York City Council bill Intro 173-A, passed March 26.