Obamacare Could Force Student Journalists to Stop Working

Imagine schools telling kids not to study too hard, or spend more than a couple hours on homework each week, out of fear of federal reprisal.


Pete Souza / White House

Here's another entry for the long list of regrettable, unintended consequences of the Affordable Care Act: Universities are reducing student journalists' work hours to remain compliant with federal law.

The situation is complicated, and the feds haven't exactly clarified matters. In general, the government now requires employers to provide health care coverage to employees who work more than 30 hours a week. Does that include students who work for their campus publications? Such students are scarcely compensated—exemptions in the federal minimum wage law allow universities to skirt that obligation—but they certainly work long (if uneven) hours. Even so, they don't fall into other categories that might qualify for healthcare exemption, such as interns or work-study participants, notes the Student Press Law Center:

How student journalists fall under university policies and the health care law is unclear.

"There's just a lot of gray out there," said Laura Widmer, general manager of The Iowa State Daily. "And I don't know that there's anything definitive that we can embrace as gospel."

Rachel Arnedt, an attorney with Wiggin and Dana LLP who specializes in health and benefit plans, agreed: There aren't clear answers at this point because the law is so new.

"I really think this just is going to shake out over the next couple of years," Arnedt said. "The IRS does say that it's continuing to think about these situations and will continue to come out with new guidance as it thinks is necessary."

Student journalists are part of a niche category of employees: workers often paid by stipend who don't track their sporadic hours and whose jobs aligns closely with their education. Some won't reach that 30-hour threshold, but upper-level editors and top reporters may far surpass it. The journalists who hold multiple jobs on campus may very easily cross that line as well.

Since it isn't clear, universities are handling matters differently. Some are now enforcing hard caps of 30 hours a week on student journalists' work schedules.

But that's terrible! For many college-aged journalists, their work at the campus daily is their education. They are getting on-the-job training and learning the valuable skills of writing and reporting, which they will carry with them into post-college employment—even if they don't become journalists. Imagine schools telling kids not to study too hard, or spend more than a couple hours on homework each week, out of fear of federal reprisal.

A hard cap of 30 hours could also disproportionately hurt poorer students who have to spend some of that time doing university jobs that actually pay—cafeteria work, for instance—in order to afford tuition or board. Do those hours eat into the 30? If student journalists are being counted as employees, they do.

There will also be consequences for campus accountability, notes The College Fix. While student journalists aren't professionals, they are still the best chroniclers of waste, fraud, and abuse in bloated higher education bureaucracies. Students have broken stories of academic and athletic fraud as well, often to the embarrassment and disdain of their administrations. For universities that want to stop campus publications from keeping them honest, Obamacare certainly provides a great excuse, according to The College Fix:

And they may be the only source of accountability on campus if the board is just a pawn of the administration and the faculty are too cowed to speak (perhaps more likely at private institutions).

Forcing student journalists to keep their hours to a preset limit to avoid Obamacare mandates can make a school look both good and bad – sure, it's trying to avoid providing health benefits, but it's also trying to ensure students don't neglect the rest of their education.

Either way, the result is the same: less accountability for administrations that are already plenty creative in avoiding public scrutiny.

This messy situation speaks to the erosion of individual decision-making under Obamacare. I'm sure many (if not most) student journalists would rather be free to work long hours at their campus publication than get paid minimum wage or have some claim to healthcare that will in effect necessitate a university crackdown on work hours. Not because they like being volunteers, but because their work is going to open doors for them after college.

As an undergraduate at the University of Michigan, I worked for the campus publication, The Michigan Daily. During the year that I served as editorial page editor, I'm quite sure I was typically working at least 30 hours a week. The students in the news section were undoubtedly working even longer hours. That experience allowed me to obtain several post-college internships (either unpaid or minimally paid via stipend), and eventually, employment in the field of journalism. If, during any of these steps, my employers had been required to provide me healthcare or pay me money, they would have sooner done without me. If that were the case, I simply wouldn't be employed in journalism today.

I suspect this is the case for many young journalists, which is why the Affordable Care Act is so frustrating. Clumsy federal regulation strikes again.