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Lawmakers Look to Enhance Unpaid Intern Protections

(Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

House Democrats introduced three bills to protect interns from sexual harassment and discrimination Tuesday, notably extending protections to the scores of interns in congressional offices.  

“It is unacceptable that employees and interns working right next to each other have different levels of protection against abuse,” said Oversight and Government Reform ranking Democrat Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland. “There should be no legal gray area when we are talking about preventing sexual harassment and discrimination in the workplace.” The three pieces of legislation work to extend federal protections specifically to unpaid interns. The lawmakers contend there are currently no federal laws relating to protecting interns from discrimination based on race, gender, religion, etc., or from sexual harassment.  

So they introduced three pieces of legislation extending protections to interns in the private sector, the federal government and Congress.  

"Nobody — from a junior intern to a senior executive — deserves to be harassed, discriminated or retaliated against at work," said Rep. Grace Meng, D-N.Y., who introduced the bills along with Cummings and Rep. Robert C. Scott, D-Va.  

"A negative experience like this can be devastating to young interns as they start their careers, and these types of incidents can have terrible impacts on their futures," Meng said. "From the halls of Congress to corporate boardrooms, an equal and hostile free work environment must be ensured for all."  

The lawmakers notably included a separate bill to protect congressional interns, amending the Congressional Accountability Act, which became law in 1995 and extended safety, health, and anti-discrimination laws to Congress and legislative branch agencies.  

Currently the only two instances where interns are mentioned in the CAA are in excluding them from rights and protections under the Fair Labor Standards Act, which governs minimum wage and overtime pay.  

But the Democrats' bill amends the law to explicitly state that congressional interns, including intern applicants and former interns, must be protected from discrimination based on "race, color, religion, sex, or national origin," age or disabilities.  

Cummings told CQ Roll Call in the Speaker's Lobby Tuesday that there was not a specific instance in Congress that spurred the effort to include congressional interns.  

"I just thought it was important that we cover everybody," Cummings said. "It's just important."  

In 2013, the Office of Compliance, which enforces CAA, did report an increase in harassment and discrimination complaints  among Capitol Hill employees. But a source with the office said interns were not as likely to report workplace complaints, since the office does not often hear from interns. The source did not know of a specific number of instances the office has assisted interns, but said generally there have been a couple over the years.  

Though the office doesn't typically hear from interns, the fact that the CAA does not explicitly include interns in the provision banning discrimination would also not stop the Office of Compliance from assisting interns who file a complaint.  

As the legislation moves forward, representatives from the office will also be looking to meet with Cummings' staff to answer any further questions they have about the CAA.

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