House Passes Bill To Protect Unpaid Interns From Discrimination

The legislation only applies to interns in the federal government, but a companion bill would protect interns in the private sector, too.
FILE - In this Sept. 4, 2015, file photo, Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) speaks to reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington.
FILE - In this Sept. 4, 2015, file photo, Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) speaks to reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington.

WASHINGTON -- The House of Representatives passed a bill Monday night that would extend new protections to unpaid interns in the federal government, a vote that bodes well for the legislation's chances in the Senate.

The bill would close a loophole in federal law that carves unpaid interns out of the Civil Rights Act. Current law does not acknowledge unpaid interns as employees, leaving them without remedies if they encounter discrimination based on race, sex, age or religion. The proposed legislation would allow unpaid interns to sue the government in federal court if their rights were violated.

The Democratic-sponsored bill passed a voice vote in the GOP-controlled House on Monday night, putting it in the hands of the Senate, which is also controlled by Republicans.

Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), a sponsor of the bill, described it as "commonsense legislation that should have become law long ago."

"Allowing this kind of behavior to go unchecked can have serious consequences on the lives and careers of young people interested in government service, and I am encouraged that the House passed our bill with unanimous support," Cummings said in a statement.

The bill is one of a trio introduced by Democrats looking to extend civil rights protections to unpaid interns in all U.S. workplaces. The other two would apply to unpaid interns working in congressional offices and to the private sector at large. The bills are being pushed by Cummings and Reps. Bobby Scott (D-Va.) and Grace Meng (D-N.Y.)

The legislation aimed at private businesses would clearly have the biggest impact, as well as the tallest hurdles to overcome. Republicans in both chambers have been reluctant to impose any new regulations on businesses, particularly ones that can lead to lawsuits from workers.

Scott said Monday that, given the passage of the federal portion of the legislation, he was calling on leadership of the Education and the Workforce Committee to take up the private-sector companion bill.

Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) plans to introduce a companion to Cummings' bill in the Senate, according to House Democrats.

The lack of protections for federal unpaid interns was brought to light by a youth advocacy group called Young Invincibles, which has lobbied lawmakers on the issue since 2014. Reid Setzer, the group's policy analyst, called the bill's passage Monday "an important first step" to ensuring workplaces are "safe and healthy environments" for interns.

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