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Legal Issues Teaching Assistants Face

Teaching assistant positions are a good way to make some extra cash while attending college. They are also a great way to gain teaching experience for those who are interested in pursuing a career in education. While there are undergraduate teaching assistants, teaching assistants are typically graduate students. Undergraduate students are usually paid hourly, earn credit hours, or work on a volunteer basis, while graduate students are always paid. 

While there are many perks to being a graduate teaching assistant, there are several potential issues involved as well. This article focuses on graduate teaching assistants and the legal issues they face.

What is a Teaching Assistant?

A teaching assistant (TA) is a graduate student who is employed by a college or university. They are usually employed on a temporary contract basis. The duties and responsibilities of TAs vary from school to school, and even from professor to professor. Responsibilities of teaching assistants can include conducting office hours, administering exams, and leading small group discussion session. Although the actual duties may vary, the main responsibility of a TA is to assist the professor in teaching his or her class.

TA Unions: Students or Employees?

Unions are a way for employees to gain power through organizing, allowing employees to secure better working conditions, benefits, and wages. Unions give power to employees mainly through the process of collective bargaining. Teaching is a profession that is widely and publicly unionized. When it comes to TAs, unionization is a complicated issue. Since unionizing is exclusively for employees, the question is: Are TAs students or employees? Unfortunately, there is no easy answer to this question.

Being able to unionize could help TAs in various ways. It would give TAs the opportunity to engage in collective bargaining with their employers. A teaching assistant union would also allow TAs to have more power in securing better benefits, higher wages, and improved working conditions overall.

Many public universities currently have TA unions, including the California State University system. In public universities, TAs are governed by state collective bargaining laws. Some states explicitly include TAs in such laws, while other states don't state whether or not TAs are included. Currently, Ohio is the only state that explicitly excludes TAs from collective bargaining.  

While state collective bargaining laws apply to public universities, they don't govern private universities. Instead, private universities are covered by the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has heard several cases involving whether or not TAs are employees or students, and it has switched its position several times over the years. The NLRB's decision in 2004 involving Brown University, took away the collective bargaining rights of graduate students at private universities. Since that decision, the drive for teaching assistant unions at private universities has stalled in courts.

Sexual Harassment

Whether it's between students, or by a professor or other university staff, sexual harassment at school can be a problem. Again, whether or not a TA is an employee will change the consequences of sexual harassment. If a TA is an employee, then any sexual harassment by a professor or other university staff towards a TA would be governed by employment law, including federal workplace discrimination laws. If, on the other hand, a TA is a student, the harasser would be violating Title IX, which prohibits discrimination based on sex in any educational activity or program.

Each college has its own policies for handling sexual harassment. These policies are usually outlined in a university's employee handbook. For example, at Northwestern University, teaching assistants are advised to report any instances of sexual harassment they witness or are told about. At the University of Florida, any teaching assistant who has knowledge of a student being sexually harassed must report it to the Director of Employee Relations. Failure to report a case of sexual harassment could result in disciplinary action.

Getting Legal Help

If you have questions about being a teaching assistant, you may want to contact an education attorney in your area.

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