Even in the “gig economy,” where an increasing number of Americans are working as independent contractors, federal laws continue to deny independent contractors protections from workplace discrimination and harassment. Federal statutes such as Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 – which provide workers with powerful protections, rights, and remedies – only cover employees, not independent contractors.
Consequently, many states and local jurisdictions are amending their anti-discrimination and anti-harassment laws to specifically cover independent contractors and other workers not classified as employees. One of the latest jurisdictions to join this trend is the District of Columbia.
D.C. Independent Contractors and Unpaid Interns Now Protected
Until recently, the D.C. Human Rights Act (DCHRA), the district's primary anti-discrimination and anti-harassment law, defined an "employee" as "an individual employed by or seeking employment from an employer." Since D.C. courts typically rely on federal case law when interpreting the DCHRA, this definition arguably excluded independent contractors from the statute's protections, just as federal law does.
But under the Human Rights Enhancement Amendment Act of 2022, which took effect on October 1, 2022, the definition of employee under the DCHRA now explicitly covers such workers by stating that "the term 'employee' includes an unpaid intern and an individual working or seeking work as an independent contractor."
The District of Columbia joins a growing list of jurisdictions that have expanded discrimination and harassment protections to cover independent contractors, including California, Illinois, New York, Maryland, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, and Washington State. These changes are important because employers often misclassify employees as independent contractors to avoid certain legal obligations that only apply to employees, including those under federal anti-discrimination and anti-harassment laws. With these expanded protections, more and more gig workers will be entitled to the same rights and protections afforded to their employee colleagues.