The research carried out by many graduate student workers, particularly those in the physical and life sciences, involves inherent risks that could result in serious, and sometimes permanent, injury or even death. Such research might involve extensive work with highly flammable, explosive, carcinogenic, or biohazardous substances. At our yearly departmental safety meeting with the Penn Office of Environmental Health & Radiation Safety (EHRS), we were told that the official EHRS policy is to seek immediate medical attention for any laboratory-related injury; however, the university does not have any policy in place to pay for or subsidize any medical costs resulting from a laboratory accident. This leaves Penn’s student workers at risk for exorbitant medical expenses, potentially for life-long injuries.
— Graduate Student in Chemistry, School of Arts and Sciences
When I was working as a TA in my country, there was a terrible explosion in the chemistry lab, which resulted a chemistry TA having third degree burns. Even though the healthcare system was adequate to cover all the expenses, including plastic surgeries, the state still provided compensation for the accident. I cannot imagine a similar event happening here to me, where I would have to take a long medical leave, might end up not getting paid, might lose my health insurance, and I cannot imagine how much it would cost to me on top of everything. Worst of all, I have no other option than to be hopeful that a similar accident doesn’t happen to me.
— Ozan Kiratli, Biology, School of Arts and Sciences
As a former lab safety officer, I am very aware of the inadequate manner by which the university addresses safety issues for grad students working in labs. In the Chemistry Department, instead of going to Occupational Health if we are hurt on the job we have been told to go directly to the emergency room. While Occupational Health staffs physicians who have knowledge of chemical incidences and the effects on the body, the ER has no such expertise. The current procedure also involves students paying for our own emergency care expenses as the university has explicitly told us that graduate students do not get workers’ compensation if hurt at work.
— Graduate Student in Chemistry, School of Arts and Sciences
When an employee at Penn is injured on the job, they report their injury immediately to Occupational Health and are able to file for workers’ compensation to cover their medical expenses and any necessary leave time. But Penn’s graduate student workers, especially those who work in labs, face daily safety hazards without any of the security that a workers’ compensation policy could provide. Because Penn considers its graduate students to be students rather than both students and workers, Penn need not, under Pennsylvania law, provide us with the same safety and security that it provides its other workers.
Penn’s graduate students are not alone in facing precarious working conditions at their university. In 2014, a Cornell University graduate student in Chemical Engineering suffered permanent damage to his right arm while working in his lab. Cornell argued that graduate students were not covered by university workers’ compensation policies, and it was only through the efforts of Cornell students, especially their graduate student unionization campaign, that Cornell changed its policy in 2015. In another tragic case from 2011, a senior undergrad at Yale University was killed by a substandard and unsafe lathe. In this case, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration “lacked jurisdiction to sanction the university.” This demonstrates that even though federal labor laws exist to protect us from hazards such as substandard equipment, universities often must be pushed by graduate student workers’ collective efforts to ensure that we are truly safe on the job. A union of postdocs at the University of California did just that when they moved the UC administration to provide workers’ compensation in their latest contract.
Current university policy states that faculty and staff members who receive Penn paychecks are covered by workers’ compensation. However, the policy states that “postdocs are not considered to be employees of the university and are not covered by the university’s Workers’ Compensation.” Graduate students and the work they provide the university are never even mentioned. As President Amy Gutmann and Provost Vincent Price made clear in their March 20, 2017 letter, the university administration does not view graduate student workers as employees, despite the 2016 ruling by the National Labor Relations Board that federal labor law recognizes us as both students and employees.
This has created an environment of uncertainty on campus over the question of what responsibilities the administration has to its student employees who are injured on the job. Sometimes faculty may voluntarily take care of graduate students when accidents happen, but in many cases, graduate student workers do not have these resources and thus, they are left with only a university policy that denies them guaranteed workers’ compensation. Students in the Chemistry Department were explicitly told in the fall of 2016 that only professors are guaranteed workers’ compensation and that graduate students are not covered. These students were told that, if something happened to them in the lab, the university would not pay for either an ambulance ride or their medical costs at the emergency room. Additionally, they were told not to go to Occupational Health, where all other Penn employees are sent to receive targeted, expert care in the event that they are hurt while working. GET-UP members in affected departments have reported a culture of not actually going to get treatment because people often do not want to have to pay what can be exorbitant medical fees.
GET-UP, as a union of graduate student workers, can advocate for full inclusion of graduate student workers in Penn’s Workers’ Compensation system and more broadly for a safer working environment.
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