House votes to establish protections for unpaid federal interns

The House passed legislation on Monday to establish workplace protection policies for unpaid government interns.

Passed easily by a vote of 414-0, the measure would shield unpaid interns and applicants from discrimination or harassment on the basis of race, religion, disability, age or gender.

Paid interns are already covered under the same anti-discrimination policies that cover federal employees. Lawmakers said that gaps in existing statute under laws such as the Civil Rights Act and Age Discrimination in Employment Act leave unpaid interns vulnerable.

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"Under current law, victims rely on the discretion of managers to prevent the recurrence of this behavior, something that does not always occur,” said Rep. Elijah Cummings (Md.), the top Democrat on the House Oversight Committee and author of the legislation. 

Thousands descend upon Washington and Capitol Hill every year for internships of varying lengths. Recent studies have indicated that internships are viewed as essential for post-graduate job prospects, with one 2012 study finding that more than half of graduating college seniors had internship experience.

“As members, every one of us rely on interns. We got them in our offices down in our districts, we got them in our offices in Washington, D.C.,” said House Oversight Committee Chairman Jason ChaffetzJason ChaffetzOvernight Energy: Obama signs chemical safety reform into law House caucus to focus on business in Latin America Freedom Caucus urges vote on impeaching IRS commissioner MORE (R-Utah).

Multiple courts over the years have dismissed cases alleging harassment based on the conclusion that that interns weren't covered under the same laws protecting paid employees from hostile work environments. One 2013 case against Phoenix Satellite Television was thrown out because the judge found that the statute prohibiting sexual harassment in the workplace didn't apply to the unpaid intern who filed the lawsuit.

A handful of states have passed laws to protect unpaid interns from harassment and discrimination, including New York, California, Connecticut, Maryland and Oregon, as well as the District of Columbia.

The legislation passed by the House on Monday night does not apply to unpaid interns working in the private sector. In a statement, Rep. Bobby ScottBobby ScottDems to Obama: End citizenship rule for education programs Advocates: School meal budgets could lose millions under GOP plan Virginia GOP rep loses primary MORE (Va.), the top Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee, called for a vote on legislation to expand workplace protections to all interns.

"Congress must do more to protect unpaid interns — be it in the federal agencies, the halls of Congress, or the private sector," Scott said in a statement.

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