Lawmaker questions consistency in crackdown on unpaid interns

The ranking member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee has asked the White House to report on whether its recruitment of unpaid interns is compliant with labor laws.

Earlier in April, the Labor Department announced it would crack down on firms that failed to pay interns in accordance with the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act. "If the administration insists on pushing these requirements on private firms, it raises the question of whether the administration intends to simultaneously ensure governmentwide compliance with FLSA both in federal agencies and the White House," wrote Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., in an April 12 letter to President Obama.

Under FLSA, internships can be unpaid if six conditions are met, including: Participants are not used as substitutes for paid employees, and if the programs are "for the benefit of the trainees," comparable to vocational or educational instruction, and give the employer no immediate advantage.

According to the White House Web site, its three- to four-month internships are unpaid positions and "applicants should expect to work at least Monday-Friday, 9:00 a.m.-6:00 p.m." The FAQ section of the site says "the White House Internship Program is highly competitive and we are experiencing great enthusiasm this year."

There is a statutory provision for unpaid internships in the federal government -- as long as interns are students, said John Palguta, vice president of the Partnership for Public Service, a nonprofit group interested in workforce issues. The White House Internship Program is "a different animal" because it welcomes non-students on board, Palguta said.

Issa called on the White House to detail how many unpaid interns and volunteers it had this year and outline whether its internships meet FLSA criteria for unpaid positions. He also asked the White House to calculate the potential liability it has incurred since 2005 for any failure to pay minimum wages to interns.

The White House did not respond to a request for comment and the Office of Personnel Management could not be reached immediately.

Alyssa Rosenberg contributed to this report.

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