By ANUSHKA MEHROTRA
In response to concerns about graduate students receiving workers’ compensation when injured on the job, the University will form a task force to evaluate the feasibility of the issue.
The announcement came Monday from Barbara Knuth, vice provost and dean of the Graduate School, after months of Cornell graduate students urging administrators to provide workers’ compensation — cash benefits or medical care — to graduate students injured as a direct result of working on campus.
“The University has both a legal and moral responsibility to compensate injured grad students. Graduate students work hard and produce value for the University.” — Paul Berry grad
Graduate students will not be included in the task force, according to Paul Berry grad, a member of the Graduate and Professional Student Assembly.
The GPSA passed a resolution in February calling upon the University to provide graduate students with workers’ compensation, The Sun previously reported. Compensating graduate student injuries that occur while working on campus is currently handled on an individual basis, according to Knuth.
“We handle student injuries of all types on a case-by-case basis, in which a student’s health insurance, required for all students at Cornell, covers medical expenses,” Knuth said.
The work graduate students do and the risk they incur is “identical” to that of postdoctoral researchers, lab technicians and faculty — all of whom are covered by New York State Workers’ compensation, according to Berry.
“The University has both a legal and moral responsibility to compensate injured grad students,” he said. “Graduate students work hard and produce value for the University.”
The New York State Workers’ Compensation Board recently contacted the University to obtain legal justification for its current policy of not providing graduate students with compensation, according to Berry.
“There remains a real possibility that Cornell is violating [New York State] law on a large scale,” Berry said.
Individuals at a “non-profit education institution” — such as Cornell — can only be excluded from mandatory compensation if they are employed in a “non-manual capacity,” according to New York State Workers’ Compensation Law. Manual labor includes filing and carrying materials such as binders or books, according to the law.
However, Berry said the work graduate students do as teaching and research assistants for the University often necessitates extensive manual labor.
“Research assistants … clean lab materials, work with laboratory machinery, carry out repetitive manual procedures and move laboratory supplies or equipment,” he said. “Teaching assistants do things such as carry exams and make copies.”
Graduate students are also not covered by compensation law — despite being required to give a portion of their intellectual property rights to the University — according to Berry.
“[We] sign away a portion of the intellectual property rights to anything we make, discover, or create during the term of our appointment or using University resources,” he said. “The product of our intellectual labor is partially owned by the University.”
Berry also stressed that the University benefits directly from the work graduate students do.
“The job that graduate students do is clearly work — and it’s work that the University benefits from,” he said.
Knuth said the University is currently evaluating its current policy regarding workers’ compensation for graduate students injured during their course of study.
“We are studying this issue seriously, and have convened a working group to survey other private research universities … and to evaluate possible changes we might make in our procedures,” she said.
However, there are “serious loopholes” in the University’s current policy that require clarification, according to Berry.
“Although thousands of graduate students are at risk each day, there is no guarantee that injured students will receive any compensation under the current policy,” he said.