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Unpaid Interns: Discrimination and Accommodation

The federal courts and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunities Commission have historically held that civil rights protections under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 do not extend to unpaid interns.  Title VII is the law that prohibits employers from discriminating against employees on the basis of sex, race, color, national origin, and religion.  Breaking away from the federal view,

Maryland took steps in 2015 to extend protections against discrimination to unpaid interns.  On October 1, 2015, Senate Bill 604 became law.  Under this new law an employer may not refuse to offer, or terminate, an internship because of an individual’s race, color, religion, sex, age, national original, marital status, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability (collectively the “Protected Classes”).  The law also prohibits an employer from printing or publishing any notices or advertisements about an internship that indicates any preference or discrimination based upon the Protected Classes, unless one or more of the Protected Classes are considered a bona fide occupational qualification for the internship. In addition, employers are now required to make a reasonable accommodation for the known disability of an otherwise qualified intern.  Lastly, the law prohibits an employer from discriminating or retaliating against any intern or applicant who opposed any employer practice that is prohibited under this law, or who initiated any charge, provided testimony or participated in any investigation relating to prohibited practices by the employer.   

For the purposes of this law, an intern is defined as an individual who performs work for an employer for the purpose of training if:  (1) the employer is not committed to hire the individual at the conclusion of the training period; (2) the employer and the individual agree that the individual is not entitled to wages for the work performed; and (3) the work performed (a) supplements training given in an educational environment that may enhance the employability of the individual; (b) provides experience for the benefit of the individual; (c) does not displace regular employees; and (d) is performed under the close supervision of existing staff. This law applies to employers who have 15 or more employees working for 20 or more calendar weeks in the current or preceding year.

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