Worker’s Compensation

Brief Overview

  • Worker’s compensation varies by state and is a type of insurance carried by the employer to cover injuries and lost wages for employees
  • Since worker’s compensation is defined by state law, it is unclear if we would even be covered
  • Coverage by PA’s worker’s compensation is limited, and subject to the employer’s wishes
  • In our experience, departments themselves cover all the costs associated with any injury suffered during research
  • Worker’s compensation matters more for research students than teaching assistants. We have doubts that a pan-graduate student union like GETUP can effectively negotiate for lab-based students when it has many other priorities.

In-Depth Overview

Most people assume that worker’s compensation is simply an employer promising to pay for the medical bills of anyone injured during work. However, it is actually a type of insurance that most states require employers to carry. In essence, if an employee is injured, the insurance pays for a portion of the medical bills and lost salary. Since states have sole authority to define who and what is covered by worker’s compensation, it is impossible to make accurate comparisons across state lines.

More importantly, it is unclear that we would be considered employees under Pennsylvania law. While the NLRB has recognized us as employees capable of organizing a union under the National Labor Relations Act, it is unclear we are employees capable of receiving worker’s compensation under PA’s worker’s compensation act. Since state, not federal, law determines worker’s compensation eligibility, the NLRB ruling (which is federal) would most likely have no impact on whether or not we are eligible for worker’s compensation in PA. Graduate student eligibility for PA worker’s compensation would most likely have to solved through legislation or litigated in PA court.

For the sake of argument, we will assume that we are fully covered under PA workers compensation. What would be our benefits if we are injured during research? The data below is summarized from PA’s worker’s compensation page.

Summary of Workers Compensation Benefits

Up to 2/3 of salary ($22,000 a year)
Only medical costs related to injuries are fully covered

One-time payment is injury results in loss of limb, disfigurement, sight, and/or hearing

Worker’s compensation benefits are quite limited in what they provide. For example, we would only receive 2/3 of our stipend. Furthermore, our medical costs would only be covered if they are related to our injury. Our choice of medical providers is also generally limited to ones approved by our employer. It is important to note too that the PA workers compensation act gives the employer the right to restriction and/or deny our claim. While we do have the right to appeal, it is a complex legal process that often requires an attorney.

It seemed quite odd that Penn would not cover injuries related to research, as it would open the door to a plethora of lawsuits. We found out in BGS and SEAS, two of the primary lab-based research schools, that if a student is injured in lab, all medical care is either paid by the school and/or the PI (we are currently awaiting information from SAS). If the injury requires a significant amount of time off, the school also ensures that the student continues to receive their full stipend and  benefits (including health insurance), which is more than what a student would receive under PA’s worker’s compensation. In regards to BGS specifically, we found out that thankfully only 3 students have required such help in the 25+ years of BGS. We do not have data for SEAS or students in the natural sciences in SAS, but it appears that lab injuries are few and far between. We are encouraging everyone to reach out to their school’s dean/director to confirm these statements.

The focus on worker’s compensation by GET-UP raising a potential point of conflict. Worker’s compensation is of more importance to research students than it is to TA’s, as the risks are much greater in a research setting than a classroom. Students in BGS, SEAS, and the natural sciences of SAS would theoretically benefit the most (even though the schools themselves offer better injury coverage), whereas students in the other schools would most likely not need such coverage.

As with any organization, GET-UP will be limited in what it can achieve during bargaining. Say GET-UP is made to choose between worker’s compensation and increased TA pay. Worker’s compensation would benefit research students, whereas increased TA pay would mostly affect students whose degree is dependent on teaching experience. This is exactly why we oppose a pan-graduate student union. Every school at Penn has its own needs and concerns, it would be much more effective for each school to decide whether or not it needs a union. Furthermore, school-specific unions could argue for issues that directly affect them, without the need to balance priorities across twelve different schools and 3100 students as GET-UP is currently proposing.