Columbia assistants, undergraduate, teaching assistants, instructional officers etc.,

Columbia University established in 1891 is a non-profit postsecondary educational institution located in New York City. The major sources of annual revenue received by Columbia are through tuition and government contracts and grants. Faculty of various academic department select graduate students on the basis of academic performance which includes educational background and standardized test scores.

The case revolves around the threshold question of whether the graduate students which includes graduate research assistants, undergraduate, teaching assistants, instructional officers etc., who perform service at a university in connection with their studies are considered as statutory employees within the meaning of Section 2(3) of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA).

The petition filed by the Graduate Workers of Columbia-GWC, representing the students was dismissed by the Regional Director that graduate student assistants were not employees within the meaning of Section 2(3) by citing the case of Brown University, 342 NLRB 483 (2004). On December 23, 2015, the Board granted review and later the Regional Director’s decision was reversed on the grounds that Board in Brown University failed to acknowledge that Board needs to infer the language of the statue in light of its policies as the Act does not refer directly to the issues addressed in Columbia. It was also reversed as Brown University held that graduate assistants cannot be statutory employees because graduate assistants are students who have primarily an educational relationship with the university rather than economic relationship. The Board has statutory authority to treat student assistants as statutory employees who perform work under the guidance of university in return of compensation and thus decision held that student assistants who have a common-law employment relationship with their university are statutory employees entitled to the protections of the Act.

To an extent, I do agree that the decision of Regional Director should be reversed because according to the definition of term employee embodied in Section 2(3) of the Act- the term “employee” should include any employee with the subject to certain exceptions. None of these exceptions mentioned in Section 2(3) address to student assistants employed by the university. Moreover, though section 2(3) excludes individuals employed by someone who is not considered an employer as defined by Section 2(2) of the Act, this possibility is eliminated because private universities do not fall within any of the specified exceptions and indeed the Board has chosen to exercise jurisdiction over private, non-profit universities from last many years, for example: Brown University, NYU University, Yeshiva University.  For this factor, I would agree that the graduate assistants were under the meaning of the term employee as per Section 2(3) and also Columbia University was under the definition of employer as per Section 2(2). 

Initially, though the Board held that certain university research assistants were primarily students and not statutory employees, in Boston Medical Center, 330 NLRB 152 (1999) the Board overruled and held that interns, residents and clinical fellows at a teaching hospital were statutory employees. For university graduate assistants, the Board held them statutory employees in its 2000 decision in NYU, supra. In NYU, the Board examined the statutory language of the meaning of employee under the Section 2(3) and the common law doctrine which was based on the master-servant relationship. The master-servant relationship referred to a relationship which exists when the servant performs services for another, under the other’s control or right of control, and in return for payment. So, I think the court also got it right by relying on this factor on which NYU’s decision held that the graduate assistants were statutory students as per the statutory language, the lack of any statutory exclusions for graduate assistants and the undisputed facts establishing that the assistants, in that case, performed services under the control and guidance of the university for which in return they were compensated.  

However, the majority in Brown University described NYU as wrongly decided and insisted to not examine Section 2(3) in isolation but rather should consider looking at the underlying fundamental premise of the Act, viz. the Act is designed to cover economic relationships. But the Board rejected Brown University’s claim as mentioned above. The Board rejected on the grounds that finding student assistants to be statutory employees, where they have a common-law employment relationship with their university, is somehow incompatible with the underlying fundamental premise of the Act. The Brown University framed the issue of statutory coverage not in terms of the existence of an employment relationship but instead on whether some other relationship between employee and employer is the primary one, which was the fundamental error as it neither derived from the statutory text of Section 2(3) nor from the fundamental policy of Act. In sum, I agree with the decision of rejecting the Brown University because even when an economic component may seem comparatively slight relative to other aspects of the relationships between worker and employer, the payment of compensation in conjunction with the employer’s control, suffices to establish an employment relationship for purposes of the Act. Also, the other areas of employment laws recognize the principle that student assistant may have a common law relationship with their universities and should be treated accordingly.

All the student employees including graduate or undergraduate teaching assistants, teaching fellows, preceptors, course assistants, readers and graders, all graduate research assistants, departmental research assistants were considered as statutory employees by the Board. Adopting the common-law test, the Columbia University accepted that the petitioned for the individuals-with exception of students operating under training grants were employees under the Act but argued that research assistants were not employees as per common-law test by citing the decision of Leland Stanford. But the Board rejected the Columbia’s argument and held the decision that research assistants clearly fall into the category of common-law employees.  In my opinion, I do agree with the final decision of the Board by applying the test learnt in the class like common law test or economic reality test or hybrid test. These student employees worked under the control and guidance of university in return for compensation at the successful completion of work. The records in the case also show that student employees who do not adequately perform were subject to corrective counselling or removal and on termination the stipend is cancelled too. Also, the work of student employees advances the operations of the university which is the education of undergraduates. Moreover, nearly a billion dollars are generated through annual tuition revenue. The most important revenue-producing task is conducted by student assistants which shows the relationship which has salient economic character. Also, teaching being the requirement for the academic degree lead students assist in the business of universities by providing the instructional services for which undergraduate pay tuition. It can clearly be seen from the records that the employer had control over the work of an employee, the performed work is subject to compensation and the employee’s work lead to the revenue generation for the employer and thus I agree with the decision that all of the petitioned for classification here comprise statutory employees.

Leland Stanford determined that certain externally-funded research assistants were not employees. However, the current decisions reversed on the basis that in Leland Stanford employee research assistants worked for pursuing academic goals of their own choosing and they were not subject to discharge or stipend cancellation. For this factor, I agree with the decision as Columbia controls over the research assistant’s work and specific work is performed as a condition of receiving the financial award which clearly proves that research assistant should be treated as an employee under the Act. In sum, I agree with the held decision.