Are Graduate Students and Teaching Assistants Employees in Nebraska?

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On Tuesday, the National Labor Relations Board ruled that teaching assistants and graduate students at private universities are employees. Though this doesn’t mean that teaching assistants and graduate students at public universities are employees, teaching assistants and graduate students at public universities may have recourse under Nebraska law to be paid wages.

Neb. Rev. Stat. 48-1203 allows student-learners enrolled in “a bona fide vocational training program” to be paid 75 percent of the state’s minimum wage. This wage rate would be $6.75 per hour. The problem with this language is that “bona fide vocational training program” and “student-learners” are not defined under the Nebraska Wage and Hour Act. The ambiguity could work to the advantage of teaching assistants and graduate students at public universities in Nebraska. Generally, wage and hour are interpreted to cover as many people as possible. Additionally, the fact that the federal government states that graduate students and teaching assistants are employees could be persuasive.

Wage and hour issues like pay for teaching assistants and the use of unpaid internships are not the only wage and hour issue facing young people. Nebraska’s minimum-wage hike has raised some other issues relevant to younger workers.

Neb. Rev. Stat 48-1203.01 allows for a 90-day training rate that is 75 percent of the federal minimum wage, or $5.44 per hour. That training period can be extended for 90 days upon approval of the Nebraska Department of Labor if the on-the-job training requires obtaining “technical, personal or other skills” necessary for employment. While the $5.44 rate appears to require approval for the second 90-day period, it is not clear that such approval is needed for the first 90-day period.

Additionally, Nebraska did not raise its tipped minimum wage of $2.13 per hour when it raised the minimum wage. An effort to raise the tipped minimum failed in 2015. Under Nebraska law, tipped employees, like servers, are supposed to be paid the state minimum-wage rate, though this does not always happen. The practice of tipping has been criticized as being based on practices under slavery and for encouraging sexual harassment of servers. However, payment through tips is still allowed. Fortunately, servers in Nebraska are entitled to be paid $9 per hour rather than the $7.25 federal minimum wage.

Nebraska also allows certain disabled workers to be paid less than the minimum wage. This is similar to the federal law that was criticized by former Iowa Senator Tom Harkin recently in a speech at the Democratic National Convention.

After thinking about Nebraska’s laws regarding youth and training subminimum wages, I have a few conclusions. First of all, the vocational training minimum wage may be another route for interns to be compensated. Second, though the Nebraska legislature appears to be against expanding Nebraska’s minimum-wage law, cities can implement their own minimum-wage laws. For example, Seattle passed a $15 per hour minimum-wage law. While Lincoln isn’t Seattle, Lincoln city councilwoman Leirion Gaylor Baird appeared in commercials supporting the ballot initiative that raised Nebraska’s statewide minimum wage to $9 per hour, so perhaps a Lincoln municipal ordinance addressing unpaid internships would be politically realistic.

The offices of Rehm, Bennett & Moore, which also sponsors the Trucker Lawyers website, are located in Lincoln and Omaha, Nebraska. Five attorneys represent plaintiffs in workers’ compensation, personal injury, employment and Social Security disability claims. The firm’s lawyers have combined experience of more than 95 years of practice representing injured workers and truck drivers in Nebraska, Iowa and other states with Nebraska and Iowa jurisdiction. The lawyers regularly represent hurt truck drivers and often sue Crete Carrier Corporation, K&B Trucking, Werner Enterprises, UPS, and FedEx. Lawyers in the firm hold licenses in Nebraska and Iowa and are active in groups such as the College of Workers’ Compensation Lawyers, Workers' Injury Law & Advocacy Group (WILG), American Association for Justice (AAJ), the Nebraska Association of Trial Attorneys (NATA), and the American Board of Trial Advocates (ABOTA). We have the knowledge, experience and toughness to win rightful compensation for people who have been injured or mistreated.

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