Let’s pretend that your daughter, all of 22 years old, has just graduated College. She’s got a Business Degree, but in the 21st century economy, she’s finding the job market tough. She finds, and accepts, a position as a “volunteer intern” with a company where she hopes, if she does well, she might obtain a job offer in due course. She’s living at home, but she’s getting up, each morning, bright eyed and bushy tailed, to go to work and make her bones. She’s looking forward to her future and considers this voluntary work a brief “stop-over” to a paid job.
Within a short period of time, however, she’s coming home a changed young lady, not the young lady who was so eager and excited about her position. She’s seems moody and distracted and a little bit depressed. After a few weeks of this, you confront her and gently insist that she tell you what’s wrong.
You learn that her male boss is sexually harassing her. It doesn’t matter what he’s doing or how; that’s not the point of this discussion. The point is, what he’s doing is wrong; you know it and she knows it. Since he’s not touching her, there’s no “tortious assault,” but for the vile suggestions, the sexually abusive language, surely, you assume, there must be protection for her under New Jersey’s powerful Anti-Discrimination Laws? And if she complains and is later retaliated against by way of termination from her volunteer program, surely, the law provides for that?
The New Jersey Law Against Discrimination is certainly the Cadillac of State Civil Rights Employment Laws and does much to redress historic discrimination of all kinds, including, of course, workplace harassment based upon sex, gender, race, ethnicity, etc. Yet there are “holes” in both the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination and in the Conscientious Employee Protection Act which don’t protect volunteers, only “workers” who presumably obtain some form of compensation for the services they perform.
Senator Nia Gill from Essex County seeks to remedy that inequity with the introduction of Senate Bill S-3064, which would amend the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination, the New Jersey Conscientious Employee Protection Act (New Jersey’s State “Whistle Blower” Law), and the Worker Freedom from Employer Intimidation Act (which prohibits intimidation relative to religious and political matters in the work place). The amendments would bring interns – your daughter, in our example – within the protection of those laws.
There are many tens of thousands of unpaid interns in our economy now and there are going to be more. Increasingly, these interns are coming from traditional and historic “minority” constituencies, most notably including women, but of course, also including an increasing number of people of ethnicities other than Caucasian, which remains the American “norm.” In addition, sexual minorities – LGBT People – are far more comfortable being open in their sexual minority status (as they have a right to be) in the work place than ever before.
And yet, at the same time that our work force is increasing the percentage of minority constituency, the number of unpaid and volunteer positions is increasing as employers continue to try to cut costs and save money. These two trains are running parallel; it makes enormous sense to make sure that these people are not left out of the “fundamental human rights” that our Civil Rights statutes (including the “big three” above) say they wish to protect.
It’s the least we can do for people who are often at their most vulnerable when they’re “volunteers” hoping for something better. They shouldn’t have to fear that they’re not protected, and they shouldn’t have to fear for their jobs and their reputations if they complain.
As an Employment and Civil Rights Attorney, and as a New Jersey citizen and voter, I commend and applaud Senator Gill and on behalf of myself and my firm, strongly support this very needed Human Rights Statutory Amendment.