NLRB: Grad Students Are Employees

In a 3-1 decision, the National Labor Relations Board has ruled that graduate students working as research and teaching assistants at Columbia University are statutory employees covered by the National Labor Relations Act.

As the Washington Post reports, the ruling overturns a 2004 Brown University decision, in which the NLRB said graduate students engaging in collective bargaining “would undermine the nature and purpose of graduate education.”

The decision, which clears the way for these grad students to join or form unions, opens the door “to the full panoply of rights provided under collective bargains, and the effect will change the relationship between private sector universities and their students,” Joseph Ambush, a Boston-based attorney who filed the brief on behalf of the schools involved in this case (and who represented Brown in 2004), told the Post.

Philip Miscimarra, who offered the lone dissenting opinion in the Columbia case, voiced concerns that allowing students to collectively bargain could “wreak havoc” on their education, given the potential for strikes and lockouts, according to the paper.

That’s not all the decision could do.

Earning recognition as employees means that grad students working in teaching or research capacities “can bargain for larger stipends and better health coverage, especially if they have children,” according to the Post. “It also means they can get basic protections, such as unpaid leave.”

The ruling “could be huge,” says Laura Hung, a doctoral candidate in anthropology at American University. Hung, now working as an adjunct professor, told the Post that she’s making roughly the same salary (around $19,000) that she earned as a teaching and research assistant in her most recent academic year.

“The vast majority of my colleagues are swimming in student debt,” notes Hung, adding that her wages are “barely enough” to cover her $1,000 rent each month, and “certainly not enough” to pay for the health insurance offered by the university.

“The way things are right now obligates students to take out large amounts of debt to eat and live,” continues Hung. “There are students who are not going to find jobs that pay enough to pay that back.”

This struggle is real among young workers outside of academia as well. Pay attention, employers.

As HRE notes in an upcoming feature in our Sept. 2 print issue, the number of recent grads buckling under the weight of massive student loan debt is only growing. Recent data from the Plan Sponsor Council of America, for instance, finds 69 percent of students graduating college in 2011 and 2012 borrowed money to finance their educations, compared to 49 percent of 1992 and 1993 college graduates.

Some employers are recognizing this trend, and are responding. As we report in the aforementioned Sept. 2 piece, for example, Nvidia Corp. is helping its youngest workers start off their careers on the right financial foot.

Designed to help employees repay student loans up to $30,000, the Santa Clara, Calif.-based technology company’s Student Loan Repayment program is open to all full- or part-time employees who have graduated within the past three years and are working 20 or more hours per week and provides monthly reimbursement up to $500 or the worker’s monthly payment amount, whichever is less.

Applicable to various types of loans—Federal Perkins loans, private student loans and subsidized Stafford loans, for instance—the repayment program also helps employees who go back to school for an advanced degree.

Beau Davidson, vice president of human resources at Nvidia, describes the effort as a “bridge program” geared toward helping recent grads transition into the working world.

“This kind of assistance might help them get started in an apartment, put a down payment on a car, and get themselves situated and ready to work,” says Davidson. “It’s one less stressor to worry about.”