The Graduate and Professional Student Assembly discussed workers' compensation for graduate students during its meeting on Monday.

Greg Keller / Sun Staff Photographer

The Graduate and Professional Student Assembly discussed workers' compensation for graduate students during its meeting on Monday.

February 13, 2017

‘Breaking Point’ : Former GPSA Member Fights Back Against ‘Blatant Fictions’ Surrounding Workers’ Compensation

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“The amount of work I’ve put into this over the years has been more than my Master’s thesis,” said Paul Berry grad, a former member of GPSA, referencing his work to establish a system of workers’ compensation for Cornell graduate students.

Berry presented Resolution 10, which clarifies the conditions and policies of Workers Compensation Coverage for graduate students at a Graduate and Professional Student Assembly meeting Monday evening.

The purpose of Resolution 10 was to “revisit the issue” from an earlier resolution in 2014. Berry was a lead author on the 2014 resolution granting workers’ compensation to graduate students.

In revisiting the resolution from 2014, Berry aimed to clarify ambiguities in policies such as musculoskeletal injury prevention, disability accommodations, short-term disability and long-term disability insurance. The call for clarification additionally comes from confusion of coverage for students under fellowship, according to Resolution 10.

Berry first announced Resolution 10 during Open Forum at a GPSA meeting, according to Nate Rogers grad, GPSA president. Berry then brought the resolution to the Student Advocacy Committee where it was edited, voted on and passed to be sent to the general body of GPSA.

“Since Berry is not a current member of the GPSA, he cannot be the primary sponsor of the resolution,” Rogers said. “Typically, in the case where a committee passes a resolution, the chair of that committee acts as the primary sponsor on behalf of the committee.”

A member of GPSA, Alex Loiben grad served as the primary sponsor for Resolution 10.

“It’s not an uncomplicated issue and it’s one that’s been misrepresented for a long time in a deceitful and deliberative manner,” Berry said.

The misrepresentation that Berry cites has largely come from communication with members of the administration that prompted him to return to GPSA even though he is no longer a member.

Most recently Berry was mobilized by a presentation that Dean Barbara Knuth gave to the GPSA in October 2016, in which he believed the information that was given were “blatant fictions about what transpired.”

“The resolution itself is designed to get this issue back on the table after it’s been unresolved for a period of time since the dean has presented an alternative version of history,” Berry said.

Knuth notes that the “alternative version” may be referring to a complication that arose when an injured student was seeking workers’ compensation although not on a paid university appointment and thus “not receiving compensation of any type from Cornell at the time of the injury.”

“It is difficult to understand how the speaker can continue making the claim that workers’ compensation would have been appropriate in that case,” Knuth said. “I’m not surprised that the speaker continues to construe this fact as ‘misinformation’ given this truth undermines his claims.”

Berry added that he hoped reintroducing the issue of workers’ compensation would be an “education that has to take place” because “historical memory doesn’t last” in the constant cycling of graduate students.

A serious injury that occurred on campus in 2013 motivated the writing of the resolution in 2014, because before 2014, Cornell graduate students did not have “any formal codified policy for addressing graduate student workplace injuries,” Berry said.

To Berry’s claim of this lack of policy, Dean Knuth said “That’s simply not true. Workers’ compensation claims had been paid for injured graduate students prior to that time. And, workers’ compensation continues to be paid to injured graduate students.”

However, when this resolution was passed in Feb. 2014, it became a “breaking point” between graduate students and the administration, according to Berry.

“These were people who invested years of developing amicable relations with the graduate school managment,” Berry said. “Things were really different after this, [there was] a real breakdown in that relationship.”

Berry emphasized this breakdown when describing a closed-door meeting between the authors of the 2014 resolution and members of the administration during which he said, “we were treated with the utmost disrespect. No attempt was made to resolve the issue. We were accused of being misinformed or uninformed.”

The event that transpired in 2014 involving this resolution led Berry to contribute to the formation of Cornell Graduate Students United. Resolution 10 itself, however, does not take a position on the union.

“I formed [CGSU] because of a lot of these revisions to history that took place,” said Berry. “Because I quite frankly just don’t trust the management with a lot of the things they’ve done over the years.”

In the end, the Assembly voted to recommit this resolution to the Student Advocacy Committee for revisions due to wording concerns. Assemblymembers additionally expressed a desire to have this resolution presented at a later time with representatives from the University present as well as a legal representative specializing in workers’ compensation.

“[GPSA] recommitted to the SAC because Worker’s Compensation is a complex subject, and the GPSA membership would like to be well-informed before voting on such an important issue,” said Rogers.

10 thoughts on “‘Breaking Point’ : Former GPSA Member Fights Back Against ‘Blatant Fictions’ Surrounding Workers’ Compensation

  1. Paul’s presentation had nothing to do with the resolution we were actually passing in this meeting and was just an act to shame the administration. That is fine on its own, but he completely deceived the student advocacy committee by not sharing any of his plans in terms of methods of presenting the resolution before doing so, leaving SAC in a tough spot because while we did pass the resolution through the committee, we did not approve a 15 min long hate speech about the administration that did not add anything to the discussion that took place after. There are many reasons why SAC is recommitting this resolution, such as wording as stated in the article, and the reasons have nothing to do with the administration acting through us.

    • This is spot on.

      I also want to clarify that as the SAC Chair, I served as the primary sponsor on behalf of the SAC, since no GPSA members were willing to sponsor it, and that it does not represent my own opinions on the resolution.

      • From my understanding, this wasn’t a “hate speech” but instead an attempt to give a conflicting perspective on what was presented in October by Dean Knuth. That seems valuable — giving some useful balance to the discussion

        • A conflicting perspective can be given with a much less hostile tone. I call it a hate speech only from the way he delivered it, not the contents necessarily.

          • Then that is not “Hate Speech.”

            Hate speech is speech that offends, threatens, or insults groups, based on race, color, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, disability, or other traits.

  2. “A serious injury that occurred on campus in 2013 motivated the writing of the resolution in 2014, because before 2014, Cornell graduate students did not have ‘any formal codified policy for addressing graduate student workplace injuries,’ Berry said.”

    “To Berry’s claim of this lack of policy, Dean Knuth said ‘That’s simply not true. Workers’ compensation claims had been paid for injured graduate students prior to that time. And, workers’ compensation continues to be paid to injured graduate students.’)”

    I think Dean Knuth is side-stepping the issue here. Just because workers’ compensation had been paid and continues to be paid to injured graduate students does NOT mean that Cornell has a formal codified policy for issuing workers’ compensation. If such a policy does exist, it seems clear from reading this article that Cornell graduate students were not given a real place at the table in formalizing the policy, nor do they have any legal recourse if the policy is not followed.

  3. I was at the presentation and what I heard was a lot of facts presented — such as how the NYS Workers Compensation Board investigated at Cornell and the university doesn’t ever acknowledge this — and then reasonable interpretations of those facts as altering history. I don’t really see how this could be viewed as “hate speech,” which has a legal definition:

    “Hate speech is speech that offends, threatens, or insults groups, based on race, color, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, disability, or other traits.”

  4. It’s also worth noting that even the Dean Knuth’s comments in this article are lies. And I do mean lies, not misinterpretations. I was around in 2014 & helped with this issue somewhat. What’s important is the policy that applies to everyone, right now, today. Knuth keeps trying to make this about one individual student’s case, which she really seems to want to discredit. That’s not what the Workers’ Comp campaign was about, and it never really has been (though to be clear: Cornell did screw over Rick Pampuro also)

    I’ve graduated now but I’m glad not to be employed as a grad RA/TA anymore b/c it’s bizarre to think that working in the lab I had so little coverage, and worked with such dangerous materials all the time. I hope to see some real policy changes from this. I’d expect better behavior from the Dean of the grad school than this

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