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Obamacare’s Latest Victims: Student Journalists, Campus Accountability

The rollout of the Affordable Care Act has been anything but straightforward. From President Obama’s “lie of the year” award for his claim that people could keep health plans they liked, to numerous delays applied to parts of the law that aren’t ready for prime time, Obamacare has caught ordinary Americans off guard repeatedly.

Who knew that student journalists would be the next group to face the law’s poorly written regulations?

The Student Press Law Center’s latest magazine looks in depth at the possible predicament that paid reporters and editors at campus publications could find themselves in:

Student journalists typically don’t punch a time clock. They report, write, edit, design, proof, publish and promote their work on weekends, nights that stretch into mornings and in between classes.

Now, many are being asked to account for their hours. The changes are coming as employers begin implementing the Affordable Care Act and have the potential to upend the way newsrooms operate and how student journalists approach running out the door to cover end-of-the-week breaking news.

Schools don’t want to provide these would-be Woodwards with health insurance, so they need to keep their weekly working hours under 30.

Because there’s no general exception for student employees under Obamacare, student journalists are stuck in regulatory limbo:

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. …

Paid student journalists aren’t generally classified as part of a work-study program, [which are exempted, health-benefits attorney Rachel] Arnedt said, but they also aren’t categorized as volunteers, unpaid interns or seasonal workers.

The Iowa State Daily is grappling with how to treat its staff because it’s near the 50-employee threshold for mandatory coverage:

“It’s hard to say, ‘OK, you can only work 29 hours a week and oh my gosh if there’s a breaking story and you’re on hour 29, walk away,’” [General Manager Laura] Widmer said. “It’s impossible for our business of being breaking news and deadlines and special sections and everything else to truly say that one week looks like the next.”

Widmer said she [w]as advised to have students who work more than 29 hours sign a waiver saying they are under their parents’ health insurance or otherwise don’t need it.

“We are doing that to protect ourselves,” she said. “Whether that has any legality or not, I have no idea. It was suggested by a lawyer so I’m hoping that it does.”

Fans of the TV show 30 Rock may recall this was the same ploy that NBC executive Jack Donaghy forced on Kenneth the page to keep him from getting paid overtime during a budget crunch. Kenneth didn’t mind losing overtime pay, but he objected to signing a form promising he wouldn’t work more than his paid hours. He loved his work, would keep working his normal schedule, and didn’t want to lie.

Student journalists are largely the same way. They love their work, even when it’s grueling. They rush out to cover breaking news at whatever hour. They pore over page design late into the night. They argue with their editors over how to phrase a particular sentence so it doesn’t draw libel claims. They are invested.

The crucible of the newsroom builds camaraderie, to say nothing of valuable skills that students will need in the job market after graduation.

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.

Greg Piper is an assistant editor of The College Fix. (@GregPiper)

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About the Author
Associate Editor
Greg Piper served as associate editor of The College Fix from 2014 to 2021.