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.

NEXT: Police Department Sorry It Got Caught Denying Owning Drone

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. Putting leftist mouthpieces-in-training out of work seems like taking the short view.

    1. If these little idiots were any good, they already would have reported it.

  2. Oh, don’t worry. He won’t enforce it.
    Unless little Jeany publishes something about Obo’s lies, in which case….

  3. umm…good?

  4. Oh, and got this in the AM links late:

    “AIDS patients fear discrimination in ACA exchange”
    “But advocacy groups allege insurance companies are discouraging HIV and AIDS patients, who are expensive to cover, by requiring them to pay a percentage of costly medications instead of a flat co-pay, essentially pricing the medications out of reach.”

    Bend that cost curve!

    1. So your meds are significantly more likely to cost more than the average medication AND you are significantly more likely to need medications of any kind than the average. Yeah, those insurance companies are just out to fuck people. No economic reason to have them pay on a different scale.

    2. The pharma company isn’t playing the normal supply/demand game, because it has a monopoly (assuming a patent) and it is in all likelihood more concerned about recovering upfront cost than cost-per-unit.

      As a result, they’re much more concerned with aggregate revenue than unit price. If things are truly “priced out of reach” for a substantial number of people, there’s a good chance that prices will rapidly adjust to nudge sales up.

  5. Aren’t these hours volunteered in the first place?

    I’d be more apt to apply it to grades K-12 as the hours put in classroom work are compulsory.

    Let’s get these school days down to 5 hours if we’re too stupid/lazy/chicken to do away with compulsory education entirely.

  6. “So you have done to travellers, so shall you endure; you’ve made your bed, now lie on it.”

  7. Here’s another entry for the long list of regrettable, unintended consequences of the Affordable Care Act:

    Forseeable consequences are not unintended.

    Lawmakers should not be let off the hook for any foreseeable consequence of their actions. Nobody else is, why should they?

    The “unintended consequence” trope is designed to do exactly that. Don’t use it. Try this instead:

    Here’s another entry for the long list of regrettable and predictable consequences of the Affordable Care Act:

    Because, yes, people were predicting at the time that employers would respond to the ACA’s created perverse incentives by reducing people’s hours.

  8. Why can’t a student journalist just put in as many hours as they like, but only claim 30 on their timesheet? Am I missing something?

    1. Time sheet fraud is a guaranteed, walked-out-the-door, no-recourse termination in my business.

      1. Sure, if you over-report to get more money. But for under-reporting?

        1. Under-reporting — absolutely.

          Any company that has government contracts has to accurately report the hours worked. Under-reporting hours will get a company black-listed just as fast as over-reporting.

          This stops a program that is over-budget/behind-schedule from hiding the true cost of the program.

          1. It seems to me that under-reporting hours worked by a federally-subsidized student at a federally-subsidized university would run into the same accounting issues.

          2. Isn’t hiding the true cost of a government program budgeted in from the start?

        2. It’s sort of like people working mindless hourly jobs being ordered to take a break whether they want it or not. If the employer doesn’t force them to take a break, then the employer might be forcing them not to take a break.


  9. Don’t you see? This is a benefit for the students! You see, the colleges were ripping them off by not paying them a living wage! Now the students are better off by not getting ripped off!

    1. And they get more free time as well! What’s not to like?

  10. Curious about this stategy for Team R should they regain the WH: stictly enforce the ACA (and all other laws), therefore putting the pressure on congress to vacate this and other onerous laws.

    1. If I were running Team Red, I would simply announce that all exemptions would be repealed as of Date X, and that all provisions of the ACA would be enforced as written (including the ban on tax subsidies through the federal exchange), give a white paper on what that looks like, and invite Congress to repeal the whole goddam thing.

      Unless of course, Congress wants their law applied as written. As the President is Constitutionally obligated to do.

      Then pop some popcorn, sit back, and watch the fireworks.

      1. That’s what Team Red would do if they weren’t The Stupid Party.

  11. I’d suggest it for Team Blue also.

  12. This could be an instructive moment for a generation of impressionable college students, but something tells me their take-away will mainly be: “My greedy university isn’t providing for our insurance!”

    1. Or:
      “Those greedy insurance companies won’t…”

    2. “If only a college education were free, they wouldn’t need to deny me health care and a living wage.”


  13. At Penn State, the student newspaper is a completely independent corporation from the university:


    Seems to me that solves most of the issues here.

    1. problem solved. the evil corporation can cut their hours instead.

  14. And this is a bad thing – why?

  15. Why don’t they just stop paying them?

  16. I sense another Obamacare waiver coming down the pipe.

  17. “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?”

    More importantly, does it include orphans who shines my monocle? If so, I’ll be more than happy to throw them out on the street.

  18. It has many years since I attended college, but when I did, every student had access to free healthcare on campus. I honestly cannot say how far that healthcare was extended, but I do know they covered everything from flu to VD to broken bones. Maybe my school was an exception, maybe campus policies have changed since I was a student. And even if free healthcare on campus is a thing of the past, this still seems like a non-starter to me, as all children can stay on parents insurance policy until age 26.

    1. Under the ACA those campus healthcare programs don’t provide a boatload of the services required of all plans.

      So this is another doctor you can’t keep even if you want to.

  19. So, run an independent personal blog, and just have the college newspaper summarize stories from the blog.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.