Cornell Policy on Workers’ Compensation for Graduate Students

Embed from Getty Images

Have you ever wondered what would happen if you were injured on the job?  Recently the GPSA passed Resolution ­­9 in an attempt to answer this question (See coverage in the Cornell Daily Sun).

You may have seen the Federal and New York State Labor Law posters around your Department.  According to the law, “virtually all employers in New York State must provide workers’ compensation coverage for their employees” (WCL §2 and 3).  This coverage provides workers a guaranteed system of benefits in the event of any workplace injury, regardless of fault.

However, these benefits (though they may be posted in your Department) do not apply to graduate students at Cornell. Below, Vice Provost and Dean of the Graduate School Barbara Knuth responds in writing to the GPSA’s Student Advocacy Committee with the legal justification Cornell uses to exclude graduate students from these benefits:

Question (Student Advocacy Committee): “Our initial research leads us to believe that other major research universities in NY State, such as NYU, all the SUNY schools, and Syracuse provide workers’ compensation coverage to graduate students working as TAs and RAs. However, it is our understanding that Cornell believes graduate students working as TAs and RAs are not eligible for NY State Workers’ Compensation coverage.

Is this correct? If so, will you explain the University’s position and direct us to the specific statutory language that the University uses to reach this conclusion? Our own initial research has noted that the NYS Workers’ Compensation Law states that anyone who receives compensation from an organization (whether or not that organization considers them to be an employee) must receive workers’ compensation coverage: ‘Please note that compensation includes stipends, room and board, and other ‘perks’ that have monetary value (WCL §3 Group 18)’”

RESPONSE (Dean Knuth): “According to the provisions on the following website (excerpted below), graduate students are excluded from Workers’ Compensation coverage under NYS law.

Who Is Not Covered By The Workers’ Compensation Law?

1. Individuals who volunteer their services for nonprofit organizations and receive no compensation. Please note that compensation includes stipends, room and board, and other “perks” that have monetary value (WCL §3 Group 18). Money used solely to offset expenses incurred while performing activities for the nonprofit is not counted as a stipend (WCL §2 [9]);

2. Clergy and members of religious orders that are performing religious duties (WCL §3 Group 18);

3. Members of supervised amateur athletic activities operated on a nonprofit basis, provided that such members are not otherwise engaged or employed by any person, firm, or corporation participating in such athletic activity (WCL §3 Group 18);

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;

In addition, we did not examine each of the institutions you mention in your question because many of them exist in contexts different from Cornell, i.e., they are not private institutions. We did inquire with colleagues at Syracuse University, however, and learned that Syracuse provides workers compensation coverage for registered/enrolled graduate students only for circumstances in which it is very clear, in the university’s judgment, that the graduate student was injured while performing duties for the university and not when the graduate student was performing activities for their own academic purposes or scholarship.”

So what does happen when a graduate student gets hurt on the job? Next time we will post details about the “case-by-case” basis the university uses to handle these situations.