NLRB: Federal Law Does Not Protect “Mutual Aid” Rendered by Employees to Unpaid Interns
The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) protects the right of “employees” to engage in actions for their “mutual aid or protection” free from employer interference. But do those rights extend to actions designed to promote the interests of non-employee workers, such as unpaid interns? According to a recent decision from the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the answer is “no.”
The case before the NLRB involved the well-known nonprofit organization Amnesty International, which is based in Washington, DC. According to the NLRB, Amnesty has approximately 25 employees and 15 interns at its Washington office. The interns were college students who “typically volunteered for a single academic semester” and assisted with “administrative tasks,” such as “reporting back on governmental hearings and drafting content for publication.” At no point did the interns receive “economic compensation” from Amnesty, i.e., they were unpaid internships.
In February 2018, a group of interns decided to write a petition, requesting Amnesty provide them with financial compensation. The interns sought the assistance of an Amnesty employee, who provided “feedback on the draft petition,” according to the NLRB. The employee, together with Amnesty’s local Union Shop steward, also “encouraged” employees to sign the interns’ petition.
Apparently, Amnesty was already in the process of transitioning to a paid internship program. This plan included reducing the total number of interns from 15 to 3. Amnesty said it was not aware of the interns’ petition at the time this move was under consideration.
In April 2018, Amnesty’s executive director held a meeting with several employees. During this meeting, the employee who had been assisting the interns with their petition raised the issue of paying the interns. The executive director then described the paid internship program already under discussion.
The day after this meeting, the interns emailed their petition to the executive director. This led management to “accelerate” its transition plans. Amnesty employees, in turn, objected to the “sharp” reduction in the number of internships. The employee who previously assisted the interns met privately with the executive director. The director said she perceived the petition to be “litigious,” “adversarial,” and threatening. She told the employee that “you could try talking to us before you do another petition.”
The executive director’s statements prompted the NLRB action. The agency’s general counsel alleged the employee’s decision to join the interns’ petition was an act of “mutual aid” protected by the NLRA. A three-member panel of the NLRB disagreed. All three members agreed the executive director’s comments did not qualify as a “threat of reprisal.” The director merely expressed her “disappointment about how the petition transpired.”
A majority of the panel went a step further, however, and said that the employee’s actions were not protected at all by the NLRA. The “mutual aid” protections of the law only apply to “employees,” the majority said, which does not include unpaid interns. Since there was no evidence the employees “joined the petition for any reason beyond supporting the nonemployees’ effort to be paid,” there was no “protected activity” at issue here.
Do You Have Additional Questions About the Use of Interns in the Workplace?
The NLRB’s decision provides a useful clarification for businesses and nonprofit employers that rely on interns as part of their operations. If you have further questions or concerns about how this ruling may affect your own internship programs, contact a qualified Florida employment law attorney today.