Workers’ Compensation is a form of insurance which fulfills one of the most basic rights of any employee—to be compensated with wages and medical care in the event of a workplace injury. This coverage has been mandatory for virtually every type of employee in any industry in the United States since 1948. And yet before 2014 Cornell did not have any formal, codified policy for addressing graduate student injuries.
In the 2013-2014 academic year a serious injury to a Cornell graduate worker in Chemical Engineering prompted leaders in the GPSA to inquire into Cornell’s policy on providing Workers’ Compensation. At the time, in response to this inquiry and subsequent GPSA resolution, the administration argued that “graduate students are excluded from Workers’ Compensation coverage.” Dean Knuth subsequently told the Chronicle of Higher Education, “We do not believe a predetermined, highly prescriptive approach is the best, most-supportive way to handle graduate-student injuries in an academic environment.” The lack of policy also allowed the administration the right to deny claims or suspend benefits arbitrarily.
Currently, the policy allows grads to claim Workers’ Compensation in a narrow range of circumstances; however, it is important to note that Cornell directly opposed Workers’ Compensation for grads before 2015. The injury in 2014 and subsequent controversy generated national media attention and an external inquiry into Cornell’s policy from the New York State Workers’ Compensation Board. Given the administration’s clear opposition to providing this coverage, it is unlikely the policy would have changed as a result of the GPSA process alone.
Notably, several founding members of Cornell Graduate Students United (CGSU) cite the events surround the Workers’ Compensation controversy of 2014 as the primary catalyst forming our graduate union. The authors of the 2014 GPSA resolution concerning Workers’ Compensation all subsequently became members of the union.
Negotiating a union contract will allow us to ensure that this basic coverage remains in place for current and future graduate workers. Currently, New York State mandates compensation at a minimum two-thirds of average weekly salary and payment of medical costs. The union could negotiate for higher levels of compensation and a more comprehensive system of benefits. For instance, Cornell currently provides a comprehensive system of medical leaves benefits to all employees except for graduate workers (including: musculoskeletal injury prevention, disability accommodations, and disability insurance). These are examples of benefits that grad workers do not have which could be negotiated into a union contract.
Unfortunately—in addition—Cornell’s current policy on Workers’ Compensation does not apply to Grad Workers at all times. In reference to the current policy several situations exist where we may not be covered:
- grads funded on fellowship are almost certainly not covered under the policy since they are not employed on a paid assistantship appointment or hourly paid appointment, and
- grads officially employed as a TA but required to work in a hazardous research environment not directly related to their assistantship.
CGSU can fix this by negotiating a system of benefits where all Grad Workers are covered at all times.
CGSU maintains that grads funded on fellowship are workers too—in large part due to the Intellectual Property agreements we are required to sign. CGSU negotiated hard with Cornell management to include fellows in our bargaining unit in 2015; however, Cornell management would not budge on this issue. CGSU remains committed to providing fair and safe working conditions to grads employed on fellowship. We hope to expand the bargaining unit to include fellows in the future.