02 Nov CFO Jonathan Cartu Announced – Who pays when a graduate student gets hurt?
On Nov. 2, 2018, chemistry PhD student Shiva Dastjerdi was working in her Boston University research lab synthesizing candidates for cancer drugs. She was walking across the lab carrying a small vial containing trifluoroacetic acid when her foot slipped on a wet spot on the floor.
When chemistry PhD student Shiva Dastjerdi burned herself in a lab accident, she assumed her school would cover her medical bills. Isn’t that what employers do? As it turns out, university policies about workers’ compensation don’t always include graduate students. Interviews with students, professors, university officials, and lawyers across the US reveal that whether graduate students are considered employees—and are thus eligible for workers’ compensation—is far from clear. Consequently, when accidents happen, they can leave students recovering from significant injuries while facing huge medical bills. And PhD students may not have any idea.
Dastjerdi was wearing gloves, goggles, and a lab coat, as her work required. But her lab coat, like many, didn’t button all the way to her neck, and Dastjerdi was wearing a V-neck shirt. As she caught her balance, a few milliliters of the acidic solution splashed out of the uncapped vial and onto her upper chest.
Not wanting to take off her shirt to use the lab’s safety shower, which had and still has no curtain, Dastjerdi ran across the hall to the bathroom. There, she poured water over her chest for several minutes. When she emerged, a lab mate and her adviser, chemistry professor Aaron Beeler, helped her report the incident to campus emergency services and BU’s Environmental Health and Safety office and Research Occupational Health Program, following university protocol.
The burn felt like hot water seeping deep into her skin, Dastjerdi says.
She remembers the next few hours as frustrating: The ambulance crew didn’t seem to know how to treat her injury. The emergency room staff initially thought her accident involved a few liters of hydrofluoric acid. After she sat for several hours in an exam room using a wet paper towel to soothe the burn, doctors sent her home with instructions to wash the area with soap and water, saying there wasn’t much else they could do.
But that frustration was minor compared with what happened over the next several months, as Dastjerdi landed in the maddeningly complex world of US workers’ compensation laws and how they do—or do not—cover medical expenses for graduate students injured while working in a research lab. Dastjerdi dealt with collection notices for overdue hospital bills and confusing and contradictory information from BU officials. Eventually she hired a lawyer who convinced the university to pay some of her medical expenses.
Dastjerdi is far from the only US graduate student or postdoctoral researcher to be injured while at work. She is also not the only one to have been surprised that collecting a paycheck does not safeguard against personally paying medical bills for work injuries. Nor is BU the only institution with unclear policies—a C&EN review found that other schools’ stances seem similarly vague, and a federal fight continues over whether graduate students are considered employees for certain purposes. It’s yet another vulnerability for graduate students in a system in which they have the least money and power.
To understand how a graduate student ends up fighting her own university over medical bills, start at the turn of the 20th century. At that time there was little chance US workers injured on the job could get any help from their employers to pay medical bills or cover lost income. The legal deck was stacked against workers, letting business owners use the thinnest justifications to duck any financial or legal responsibility for accidents.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, US states began to pass laws to protect workers, following European examples. These new laws were seen as a grand bargain between employers and employees, says Michael C. Duff, a workers’ compensation law expert at the University of Wyoming College of Law. In exchange for a guaranteed payment if they were injured on the job, workers gave up their right to sue employers over the accidents. For business owners, Duff says, that agreement meant paying a few claims while avoiding “the one big lawsuit that really blows the doors off.”
Credit: Courtesy of Shiva Dastjerdi
After a lab accident, Shiva Dastjerdi faced $5,100 in out-of-pocket costs for medical treatments.
Workers who make successful claims may be eligible for different kinds of payments. One is reimbursement for medical expenses, which Dastjerdi was expecting. Because her injuries didn’t keep her from coming back to work, she wouldn’t have been eligible for lost-wage payments—usually two-thirds of an employee’s pay, though that varies between states—or an award to compensate for being permanently unable to work.
Today, each state has its own definition of who qualifies for workers’ compensation. In general, the decision comes down to questions like, Did the workers bid for the job? Did they bring their own tools? Can the company fire them at will? says William L. Smith II, a workers’ compensation lawyer in South Carolina. As Dastjerdi discovered, just getting a paycheck isn’t enough.
Those standards might be changing. A 2019 California law mandates that employers consider workers to be employees unless the workers fit certain criteria. Other states are considering similar laws. It’s unclear how such laws might affect graduate students.
Whether a worker in the US is an employee is “one of the most contested areas of labor employment law right now,” Duff says. And the situation for students who may also be employees is even more complex. That’s reflected in ongoing fights over the unionization of graduate students. In separate cases over the past 2 decades, the US National Labor Relations Board has gone back and forth on whether graduate students can unionize, and in 2019 it proposed a rule clarifying that student workers are not employees. The board is expected to make a final decision this fall.
Making the situation more confusing is that students—or any workers—may find that they are considered employees for some purposes, such as federal tax law, but not for others. Dastjerdi, for example, got weekly paychecks, and BU filed with the US Internal Revenue Service the annual W-2 tax form reporting wages paid to her and the taxes withheld from them.
Looking for clarity, Dastjerdi contacted Massachusetts’s Department of Industrial Accidents (DIA), which regulates the state’s workers’ compensation system. She says the agency told her anyone who gets an annual W-2 should be considered an employee. It recommended she submit a workers’ compensation claim. She gave the claim form to her lawyer, although she says she isn’t sure if he ever submitted it. Neither the DIA nor her lawyer answered C&EN’s questions.
Duff says the standards for workers’ compensation eligibility can be confusing for employers too. “I don’t think they’re pretending not to understand,” he says. Dastjerdi’s lawyer set legal proceedings in motion to take her case to the ultimate arbiter, a state court, but BU agreed to pay some of her bills before a judge heard the case.
Scarred, with $5,100 in bills
As an ambulance carried Dastjerdi to the emergency room, her adviser, Beeler, was Googling acid burns and follow-up treatments. He called a local burn center, at Massachusetts General Hospital, and texted its advice to Dastjerdi while she was still in the ER: that she should schedule an appointment with a Mass General specialist who could evaluate the burn and any scarring.
Dastjerdi did, and the specialist suggested half a dozen laser treatments. Dastjerdi says her burn scars started out painful and itchy every day. A few laser treatments helped, but the scars are still sometimes itchy, red, and dry. She also saw a dermatologist at Boston University’s medical school who she says advised her to try letting the scars heal on their own.
Who is an employee?
Traditionally, workers are usually employees if all of the following is true:
▸ The hiring entity controls and directs how the workers do their work.
▸ The work being done is within the usual scope of the entity’s business.
▸ The workers are paid an hourly, daily, weekly, or monthly wage.
▸ The hiring entity supplies tools and materials needed to do the job.
▸ The entity has the right to hire and fire the workers.
Under the new California ABC test, workers are assumed to be employees unless all of the following is true:
▸ The hiring entity neither controls nor directs how the workers do their work.
▸ The work performed is outside the usual scope of the entity’s business.
▸ The workers customarily work independently of the entity on the tasks they…