Assistant Adversity

Student Worker

I'm a grad student working on a computer project for a professor.  I got wrist strain from typing so much. Who pays for this?

With the cost of tuition rising, students have greater debt than ever before. Working at college can supplement your income, however there can be legal implications if you are injured or get ill.

Students working on research projects or as teaching assistants come under the National Labor Relations Act of 1935. A number of legal rulings for the rights of student workers were made in recent years, culminating in August 2016. It was decided that colleges and universities must consider student workers as employees. With that comes additional liabilities and responsibilities for compensation for the college.

Many universities have argued that carrying out research is an educational, not economic, relationship with their students. Students counterargued they are essentially employees, so should be afforded the same rights. Scholarships, health insurance, and stipends may be offered, but coverage is limited and pay is usually low. Being classified as employees means that students can now bargain for larger stipends and better health coverage and benefits.

Private institutions of education now come under National Labor Relations Board’s jurisdiction. However, there is an exemption for public colleges. State laws do cover working students at public colleges, and they are considered as employees and subject to the relevant labor legislation.

Following last year’s NRLB ruling, a number of rights and benefits are now open to students. You now have the right to join a union and the right to financial benefits such as workers’ compensation. Employers, in this case the college, must also provide safe working conditions.

Universities now have the recordkeeping burden to provide payroll information to insurers to determine workers’ compensation premiums. Details should include pay rates if students are compensated and the number of students working on campus. Premiums can also be calculated using student housing subsidies and other benefits they may be receiving.

The ruling has also extended safety training for students, including provision of specialized work clothing. Most colleges already provide this if students are working in hazardous areas such as laboratories. With colleges morphing into workplaces, administration now has to carry out incident reporting, preparations for emergency situations, campus safety regulations, and office ergonomics. Many of the labor laws governing violence and discrimination in the workplace now apply to students working at college.

Injuries such as your wrist strain could be covered by workers’ compensation. Repetitive strain injury or carpal tunnel can be caused by excessive typing and bad posture. It's a recognized workplace hazard and is covered under worker’s comp, providing that it has been caused or aggravated by working conditions.

Where trade unions are most firmly organized, there are the rights of the people most respected - Samuel Gompers.

(Martin J. Young is a former correspondent of Asia Times).

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