Workers’ compensation for graduate students

Graduate students at Cornell University are pushing for the right to workers’ compensation, report the Chronicle of Higher Education and Cornell Daily Sun. The effort started after chemical engineering graduate student Richard Pampuro severed tendons and destroyed an artery in his right arm on some broken glass. “After two surgeries and about 40 sessions of physical therapy, Mr. Pampuro said his hand still ‘feels like wearing a mitten—the fingers all move together,’” the Chronicle says.

Under New York law, “people engaged in a teaching or ‘nonmanual’ capacity at a charitable or educational institution are exempted from being covered under workers’ compensation” unless the employer decides otherwise, the Chronicle reports. Cornell faculty are eligible for workers’ compensation. The New York state workers’ compensation board has asked Cornell to clarify why it distinguishes between faculty and graduate student teachers, the Chronicle says.

Looking at the board’s website, it seems odd that graduate students would be exempt:

Who Is Not Covered By The Workers’ Compensation Law?
4. People engaged in a teaching capacity in or for a nonprofit religious, charitable or educational institution (Section 501(c)(3) under the IRS tax code). (WCL §3 Group 18) To be exempt, the teachers must only be performing teaching duties;
5. People engaged in a non-manual capacity in or for a nonprofit religious, charitable or educational institution (Section 501(c)(3) under the IRS tax code (WCL §3 Group 18). Manual labor includes but is not limited to such tasks as filing; carrying materials such as pamphlets, binders, or books; cleaning such as dusting or vacuuming; playing musical instruments; moving furniture; shoveling snow; mowing lawns; and construction of any sort;

Graduate students don’t just teach, and it seems likely that research laboratory tasks would count as manual labor. C&EN’s Beth Halford reported in 2004 that New York graduate students were covered by workers’ compensation. The Daily Sun says that postdoctoral researchers are covered by workers compensation.

Halford’s story made clear what the Chronicle story and Science Careers also say now: This is a legally murky area, with varying state laws and university policies.

Prospective graduate students should take the time to research the laws and policies applicable to schools they’re considering attending. Although Cornell claims that the school has done better by graduate students than workers’ compensation would have allowed, that’s been entirely voluntary on the part of the school. And according to Pampuro:

As is, injuries are handled on a “case-by-case” basis by a committee of anonymous individuals. Not even the injured are allowed to know who oversees their case. …

To say that the administration was dismissive of me would be generous. I was told in no uncertain terms that graduate students can not expect a guarantee of coverage, and that I should feel lucky for whatever I am granted. Eventually, I was offered a portion of my stipend and medical coverage for a limited period of time. The awarded compensation has failed to cover my full period of recovery. Offers from the black-box committee reflected little respect for my needs and no discernable consideration of my injury.

Cornell is forming a task force to consider the issue of graduate students and workers compensation, the Daily Sun story says. The task force will not include graduate students.

Author: Jyllian Kemsley

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  1. I wonder how or if yesterday’s ruling that Northwestern University football players can unionize will relate to this issue…

  2. @KM–The full National Labor Relations Board–where it seems that the Northwestern football players case is now heading–already ruled in 2004 that graduate students at private universities are students rather than employees (graduate students at public universities have been able to unionize since the 1960s, subject to state law). I haven’t spent much time researching this area, but I suspect that a key point in all this is that graduate students’ lab work is integral to their education and degree requirements in a way that athletes’ sports activities are not.

  3. I wrote about this at Stanford a few years ago (

    This is absolutely unacceptable. By any reading of the statues, these universities are violating the law by refusing to pay worker’s comp claims. At Stanford, the officials advised injured graduate students to lie to their insurance and claim that the injury did not happen at work. Not only are they skimping on worker’s comp, but they encourage students to commit insurance fraud.

  4. *statutes*

  5. The NLRB that ruled on the NWrn football players is different from the 2004 board, and announced ~2yrs ago that they will be revisiting the 2004 ruling.

    While you may or may not have accurately summarized Brown Univ. arguments against allowing graduate assistant unionization, I think the argument you put forth “integral to education and degree requirements” would be comical if it were tragic.

    Just because you need to spend time in the lab to achieve a PhD does not mean that when you are paid to work in the lab that you are somehow not providing the university with labor for pay. To pretend that ANY PhD’s labor in pursuit of their degree does not provide their university with real, tangible, quantifiable economic benefit is disingenuous.

    The murkiness of widely expected basic workplace protections and benefits is EXACTLY the forum where graduate unionization can make a real and meaningful impact, codifying peoples protections.

    Red herrings like whether you are also a student are really moot in cases such as these.
    Graduate assistant did not wander in off the street and are not consumers purchasing the experience of an education when they are in the lab, they are there because they are receiving compensation to be there, and their efforts there benefit the university. Take away the compensation and they go away. That is a worker.