House moves to protect federal interns from harassment and discrimination

The House voted on a measure by Rep. Eijah Cummings, D-Md., to protect federal interns from workplace harassment and discrimination. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

The House took action Tuesday to protect the youngest members of the federal workforce, interns, from workplace harassment and discrimination.

The House passed by voice vote a measure from Maryland Democrat Elijah Cummings, that would extend certain federal employee protections to unpaid interns in the federal government. Cummings is the chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, and a version of his measure also passed in the 115th Congress.

The bill would guarantee unpaid government interns receive the same protections against workplace harassment as federal employees.

“I want to be clear that this bill responds to very real instances of interns being victimized within the federal government,” said Cummings. “Without this bill, victims would be forced to continue to rely on the discretion and integrity of the managers to prevent this behavior. I still say we can do better than that.”

Although paid federal interns are already treated as employees for purposes of certain federal labor laws covering sexual harassment and discrimination, unpaid federal interns are not explicitly covered.

“Allowing this kind of behavior to go unchecked can have serious consequences on the lives and careers of those who are interested in government service,” said Cummings.

Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., noted that unpaid interns who have pursued discrimination and harassment cases have been unsuccessful, and that one court found that it was up to Congress to provide a remedy to covering interns as employees under existing discrimination laws.

“Discrimination disadvantages eager-to-work interns, but discrimination also disadvantages federal agencies by interfering with the selection of the best intern candidates,” said Foxx.

The measure defines “intern” as an individual who performs uncompensated voluntary service in an agency to earn credit awarded by an educational institution or to learn a trade or occupation.

Daniel Peake contributed to this report. 

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