House passes bill to protect federal interns against harassment

Months after a hearing on sexual harassment at the Environmental Protection Agency, one of the House’s top government watchdogs has delivered on his promise to protect the youngest members of the federal workforce.

The Federal Intern Protection Act, introduced by Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), ranking member of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, unanimously passed the House on Monday.

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

“This is common-sense legislation that should have become law long ago,” Cummings said. “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.”

The bill would also close loopholes discrimination on the basis of race, color, gender, religion, national origin, age, handicapping condition or other factors.

“Under current law, victims rely on the discretion of mangers to prevent the recurrence of this behavior — something that does not always occur,” Cummings said before the House vote.

Cummings made mention of his bill at a House Oversight hearing in July, during which whistleblowers claimed that the EPA ignored reports of sexual harassment from interns and employees at a Chicago branch office for more than a decade.

“Internships are often the first real entry into a profession,” said Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.), following passage of the bill. “Yet, unpaid interns are currently not expressly protected from prohibited discriminatory practices addressed in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, the Rehabilitation Act and other laws, regulations, agency policies.  [The Federal Intern Protection Act] would remedy this problem and extend these workplace protections to unpaid interns who may be vulnerable to egregious treatment.”

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), a former chair of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, cosponsored the bill with Cummings. She said existing law no longer reflected the role interns play in the government.

“When I administered the equal employment laws years ago, the word ‘intern’ meant newly- minted MDs, who were, of course, paid,” Norton said.  “I am grateful that our bill today takes an important first step by giving unpaid interns in federal agencies the protection of the nation’s anti-discrimination laws.”

Rep. Grace Meng (D-N.Y.) introduced her own Intern Protection Act in April 2015, and applauded passage of Monday’s legislation.

“It is unacceptable that interns working in the U.S. government continue to be denied the same safeguards that are provided to employees,” Meng said. “Everybody in the federal government, from executives to interns, are entitled to be protected from sexual harassment and discrimination in the workplace, and the passage of our bill puts us one step closer towards accomplishing that critical goal. I now call on the Senate to quickly approve our legislation as well.”

Sen.Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) plans to introduce a companion bill in the Senate.

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