Earlier today, the National Labor Relations Board (“the Board”) issued its long awaited decision in Columbia University.  Not surprisingly, the Board, in a 3-1 decision, overturned 12 years of precedent by ruling that “student assistants” (including assistants engaged in research funded by external grants) who have a “common law” employment relationship with their university are employees as defined by the National Labor Relations Act (the “Act”), and therefore are entitled to the protections afforded to employees under the Act such as engaging in the right to unionize. 

The Board has equivocated on the issue of whether graduate students are employees as defined by the Act.  In 2000, the Board in its New York University decision determined that graduate students were employees under the Act.  Four years later in Brown University, the Board overturned New York University and held that graduate students were not employees.  With today’s ruling, the Board has yet again changed course on this issue.

In Columbia University, the Board held that student assistants could be employees as defined by the Act, while also being students.  Specifically, the Board held that “the payment of compensation, in conjunction with the employer’s control, suffices to establish an employment relationship for purposes of the Act.”

The Board’s decision in Columbia University and its very broad definition of what students can be classified as employees could have a significant impact on private universities across the country.  If you have questions about the application of this case please feel free to contact us.