Who Pays When a Graduate Student Gets Hurt?

By Sam Lemonick, for C&EN

Photo of Shiva Dastjerdi
Shiva Dastjerdi thought workers’ compensation would cover her hospital bills after a lab accident. Boston University disagreed.
Credit: Gretchen Ertl

In brief

While safety is your primary concern in the lab, accidents do happen. The following excerpt from C&EN highlights a consequence you don’t often think about with accidents—Who pays for your medical expenses and lost wages? It also raises the issue of what it means to be a graduate student and how that status is handled at different institutions. If you are planning on going to graduate school, this story will shed some light on workers' compensation discrepancies you need to bear in mind. 

On Nov. 2, 2018, chemistry PhD student Shiva Dastjerdi was working in her Boston University (BU) 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.

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.

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 were hired to do.

Sources: C&EN interviews, New York State Workers’ Compensation Board, California Labor and Workforce Development Agency.

Employee ambiguity

In interviews with officials at universities across the United States, C&EN did not find a school with a clear-cut policy that would cover graduate students’ medical bills if they were injured in a lab. What those conversations did reveal—when university personnel were willing to talk—was a complex, irregular landscape. It is easy to imagine graduate students at other schools having just as much trouble deciphering workers’ compensation rules as Dastjerdi did at BU.

Of 16 universities C&EN contacted, officials at only 8 responded to requests for interviews about graduate students and workers’ compensation policies. Only one of the people C&EN was able to interview worked directly on workers’ compensation.

Chemistry department chairs and environmental health and safety officials stressed to C&EN that their first priority is graduate students’ safety, not the details of their employment status or workers’ compensation eligibility. Several told C&EN they did not know their university’s policy or didn’t know enough to feel comfortable answering questions about it.

“We really tend not to think about insurance when a student gets in an accident,” says M. G. Finn, chair of the School of Chemistry and Biochemistry at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

The chair of the University of Florida’s Chemistry Department, Lisa McElwee-White, tells C&EN that graduate students there are covered by workers’ compensation if they get injured in a lab accident. A university handbook does not confirm that, but it directs graduate students to call the university’s Workers’ Compensation Office before seeking medical care, except in emergency situations. The university official in charge of risk management, who handles workers’ compensation, declined C&EN’s interview request.