Question:  I am the Human Resources manager in a large company that uses interns during the summer and fall, and we sometimes use volunteers too.  I know interns and volunteers are not employees, but I read recently that they are now similarly protected.  What do I need to know concerning the laws on interns and volunteers?


Answer:  The California Fair Employment and Housing Act (“Act”) prohibits employers from discriminating against or harassing applicants and employees because of race, religious creed, color, national origin, ancestry, physical disability, mental disability, medical condition, genetic information, marital status, sex, gender, gender identity, gender expression, age, sexual orientation, or military and veteran status. Assembly Bill (AB) 1443 expands the Act’s unlawful harassment and discrimination protections to unpaid interns and volunteers effective January 1, 2015. AB 1443 also requires employers to reasonably accommodate the bona fide religious beliefs of unpaid interns. Therefore, employers should expand their policies prohibiting discrimination and harassment to include interns and volunteers, and should inform interns and volunteers of their rights and the procedure for reporting harassment or discrimination in the workplace. Employers should also know that they may be liable if volunteers or unpaid interns engage in harassing conduct.
The Act also requires every employer to take steps to ensure a workplace free of sexual harassment, including requiring employers with 50 or more employees to provide at least 2 hours of training and education regarding sexual harassment to all supervisory employees once every 2 years.  In light of the expansion of workplace protections to interns and volunteers, this training and education should inform supervisors and managers that interns and volunteers are now protected by the Act.  Many employers provide harassment and discrimination prevention training to all employees, not just supervisors.  Those employers should consider expanding such training to include volunteers and interns.
Another new law, AB 2053, requires employers to include a module in the sexual harassment prevention training provided to supervisors addressing the prevention of abusive conduct. AB 2053 defines abusive conduct as including “repeated infliction of verbal abuse, such as the use of derogatory remarks, insults, and epithets, verbal or physical conduct that a reasonable person would find threatening, intimidating, or humiliating, or the gratuitous sabotage or undermining of a person’s work performance.” The Act does not prohibit abusive conduct and, as such, it may not be actionable under the Act. However, employers must train supervisors and managers in the prevention of abusive conduct. Employers should modify their policies to explicitly prohibit abusive conduct and provide reporting procedures for employees, interns, and volunteers to report abusive conduct.
Finally, be aware that there are stringent requirements for the legal use of unpaid interns.  California’s Division of Labor Standards Enforcement (DLSE) and the Department of Labor have articulated the criteria that must be met in order for a worker to qualify as an unpaid intern.  You can review the factors at  In a November 12, 1998 opinion letter, the DLSE analyzed the use of unpaid interns at a weekly newspaper and determined they were actually employees entitled to wages because the “interns” performed a mix of editorial and clerical tasks, and were not affiliated with a college program.  As such, it is always important to consult experienced counsel prior to retaining unpaid interns to perform work for your company.