Legislation afoot in New Jersey would give unpaid interns coverage under laws protecting employees from harassment, discrimination and retaliation.

The sponsor, Sen. Nia Gill, D-Essex, says the change is necessary in an economy where large numbers of young people find it advantageous to work without compensation to gain experience or get a foot in the door of the job market.

She says she introduced the bill, S-3064, after learning of a case from New York in which an intern’s sexual harassment case against the company for which she was working was dismissed on the ground that she was not paid.

“This case exposed a flaw in worker protection laws, which likely exists in states across the country,” says Gill. “It revealed that even if interns work in the same building and the same hours as their paid counterparts, they are not covered by the same protections.”

The bill would amending three statutes: the Law Against Discrimination, which prohibits discrimination based on age, sex and race, and sexual harassment; the Conscientious Employee Protection Act, which protects whistleblowers from retaliatory action by an employer; and the Worker Freedom From Employer Intimidation Act, which prohibits intimidation relative to religious and political matters in the workplace.

Lawyers who represent employees in such cases welcome the change.

“This is a real step forward in the current economy, where there are hundreds of thousands of unpaid interns,” says Neil Mullin, of Smith Mullin in Montclair. “It would provide statutory protections for unpaid interns who are discriminated against because of sexual orientation, race or national origin.”

Claudia Reis, the president of the New Jersey chapter of the National Employment Lawyers Association, says the bill would keep the state’s antidiscrimination laws current with “the concept of the modern workplace and the evolution of the modern workforce.”

Because of the recent recession, there has been a surge among private employers of the use of unpaid interns.

“They used to be college students or recent college graduates, but that isn’t the case anymore,” says Reis, of Morristown’s Green, Savitz & Lenzo. “Many are seasoned professionals who have lost their jobs and who are seeking new contacts or new opportunities.

“When they are discriminated against or harassed, they suffer real harm,” Reis says. “They should be able to recover for those damages.”

Peter Peretzman, a spokesman for the New Jersey Business and Industry Association, says only that the bill is under review at present.

The case that drew Gill’s attention was Wang v. Phoenix Satellite Television, in the Southern District of New York.

Plaintiff Lehuan Wang, a Syracuse University student, was an unpaid intern for Phoenix Satellite Television U.S. Inc., a multimedia news company with bureaus in New York City and Washington, D.C., primarily serving clients in Asia.

In her lawsuit, she alleged that her supervisor sexually harassed her.

U.S. District Judge P. Kevin Castel dismissed her lawsuit, saying that the New York City Human Rights Law, arguably one of the strongest antidiscrimination laws in the country, did not apply to unpaid interns.

Castel said that for a plaintiff to have standing under the law, there must be an “employment relationship” between the employer and the employee. In order for there to be an employment relationship, compensation for a worker’s services was an “essential condition,” he said.

Since Wang was not paid for her internship, no employment relationship existed and her discrimination claim must be dismissed, Castel said.

Gill introduced the bill on Nov. 18; it has not been assigned to a committee. If the bill is enacted into law, New Jersey would become the second state after Oregon to pass legislation offering workplace protections to unpaid interns.

If it passes both houses of the Legislature and is signed into law, it would go into effect after three months and would apply prospectively.

The Christie administration did not immediately respond to a request for comment, although the governor’s standard policy is to not comment on pending legislation unless it is proposed by him.