Are Capitol Hill Interns Federal Employees?

And why that matters

Carolyn Kaster / AP

Anyone who has ever had to fill out paperwork for a new job knows that it is a daunting task. Pages of forms filled with jargon outlining roles and responsibilities can seem like an unnecessary formality. But much of the information contained in those forms, particularly how a new worker will be classified by their employer, and the government, can be critical when it comes to workplace protections.

Take for instance a bill approved by the House of Representatives this week, the Federal Intern Protection Act of 2015. The bill, which was introduced in July 2015 by Congressman Elijah Cummings, a Democrat from Maryland, would protect unpaid interns of the Federal government from workplace harassment and discrimination—protections that one might assume are already standard for just about anyone in any job, let alone those working in prestigious intern programs for the Federal government. But until this bill becomes law, such protections—and the opportunity for recourse should they be violated—are only available to those who are classified as employees or paid workers, not unpaid interns.

Young interns hoping to build their resumes aren’t the only workers who may find out that seemingly standard workplace protections don’t in fact apply to them. This same issue is a large part of the current conversation on the gig, or sharing, economy. Even when those who work as independent contractors might feel that their wages are fair, and that they enjoy flexibility in their schedule, the lack of classification as an employee can diminish their ability to protect themselves in the event of accident, injury, harassment, or termination. And the question of labeling and misclassifying workers extends well beyond app-driven, part-time employment opportunities. The issue has continually cropped up for construction workers and contractors and many other employees whose work can, in theory, be labeled as independent in order to save money on payroll and overhead expenses, while promoting the benefits of flexibility and self-direction.

While many forms of labor can certainly exist in a single economy, the language used in labor contracts, employment offers, and tax forms is particularly important because there can be massive gaps in the protections afforded to workers based on that label alone. For example, access to workers’ compensation, unemployment insurance, overtime, and family leave are generally only accessible to those who are considered formal employees by the company they work for. And the ability to bargain collectively for things like better working conditions or improved wages can also be limited by employee status.

Even as the freelance economy seems to grow, much of America’s worker-benefit system is tied to a narrow and traditional concept of employment, and a having an official label that reflects that. Without creating more nuanced language to identify workers, or changing the way that worker benefits are distributed, a gap in the safety net will always exist for workers who aren’t quite employees.