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In Harm's Way

Graduate students injured while doing laboratory research often face an uncertain fate

by Bethany Halford
August 30, 2004 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 82, Issue 35


It's been a rough summer for students. Graduate students at Brown University in Providence, R.I., were denied the right to form a labor union when, on July 13, the National Labor Relations Board ruled that they are only students, not employees (C&EN, July 26, page 12). The ruling reversed a landmark decision NLRB made four years earlier in a case involving New York University that, for the first time, allowed graduate students at a private university to unionize. The reversal also put a damper on a number of similar organizing efforts at private universities across the country.

Two weeks after the latest ruling--in completely unrelated news--three students at California State University, Los Angeles, were injured by flying shards of glass when a bottle of nitric acid exploded in a chemistry teaching lab. For me, it was one of those reminders that studying chemistry is a little more dangerous than studying history or foreign languages.

The two events got me thinking: What would happen to a chemistry graduate student who was seriously injured while doing research? Would this student be eligible to receive some kind of workers' compensation? Does it make a difference, in terms of benefits, if the student is at a private university, like Brown or NYU, or at a public university where graduate students may belong to unions and be considered employees?

Everyone I asked--professors, deans, lawyers, students, workers' compensation administrators--agreed that these are important questions. Most, however, could not give me any simple answers.

Just in case you don't know how workers' compensation operates, here's a primer: The state pays workers' compensation benefits--usually a percentage of one's salary--to employees who are injured on the job. In most cases, this is a temporary source of income until the employee recovers from the injury and can return to work.

Ultimately, the state decides whether or not a graduate student is considered an employee for workers' compensation purposes. This employee status is independent of how the university or other agencies--state and federal--view graduate students. So, while a graduate student may not be an employee in the eyes of NLRB, she may be an employee for tax or workers' compensation purposes.

Confused? It gets more complicated.

In some states, the law is clear on graduate students and workers' compensation. In New York, for example, the law says that graduate students are employees for workers' compensation purposes. So, if an NYU graduate student were hurt in a laboratory accident while doing doctoral research, he would be able to claim workers' compensation benefits.

In other states, the statutes are considerably more vague. A graduate student in the same situation at Brown University wouldn't receive workers' compensation, according to officials at the school. Rhode Island's workers' compensation officials were less definite, however, telling me that it was a tricky matter that's decided on an individual basis.

For good measure, I made a few calls to Massachusetts, but the answers I got were even murkier. When I inquired about graduate students' employee status at the workers' compensation offices of Harvard University and the state of Massachusetts, the most reliable answer I could get was, "It depends."

While graduate students at private universities in Massachusetts are left to wrestle with this legal uncertainty, their colleagues at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, have some definite answers. There, the graduate students are unionized. The school recognizes them as employees, and, under the terms of their employment contract, the university will continue to take care of an injured student's stipend and fee waivers for whichever is longer: the duration of his contract or as long as the injury keeps him from the bench, up to two years beyond his contract appointment.

UMass students say this part of their contract provides for them better than the state's workers' compensation would. In Massachusetts, workers' comp pays 60% of one's salary--not a lot of money considering graduate student stipends rarely top $20,000.

The NLRB decision has no direct bearing on workers' compensation issues for graduate students. But it does keep students at private universities from negotiating contracts like those at UMass, and it also keeps them from protesting unsafe working conditions.

Considering that it would not be unusual for chemistry graduate students to work with flammable, explosive, corrosive, biohazardous, or carcinogenic substances as part of their dissertation research, I'm surprised that these issues aren't always clearly outlined.

I'm even more surprised that these students don't demand that their universities provide them with some sort of assurance of compensation if they are injured while doing research.

Perhaps it's because of chemists' characteristically cavalier attitude, but as far as I can tell, the majority of chemistry graduate students don't seem to care if their university sees them as employees or students. When faced with unionization efforts, most say they would prefer to be left alone to do their work.


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