NLRB Decision on Unionization for Teaching and Research Assistants

This is to reassure you that the recent ruling of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) holding that graduate students having appointments as teaching or research assistants are considered “employees” of the University and are eligible to vote to form a union will not and cannot affect your student visa status. 


On August 23rd, the NLRB decided that students studying at private universities may be treated as employees when are appointed to positions of teaching assistants or research assistants. This fall, the NLRB will decide which students are eligible to vote in the election. If you are eligible to vote, I encourage you to become informed and participate in the election. More detailed information about the NLRB decision can be found at

On-Campus Employment:

F-1 student visa regulations in the Code of Federal Regulations, 8CFR 214.2(f)(9)(i), regarding F-1 on-campus employment, do not speak specifically to the issue of an international student being a member of a union or considered an "employee" by the institution. Simply stated, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is not concerned with how NLRB defines international students in the U.S. (employees vs. non-employees). However, DHS is very strict on the issues of maintenance of legal non-immigrant status, and the limitation of hours of on-campus employment. For example, if an international student exceeds 20 hours per week of employment on-campus (for any reason) during the fall or spring semesters, the student is in violation of F-1 status. Please note that if Columbia graduate students vote to unionize, the union will not be able to establish conditions that would require international students to engage in employment on-campus for more than 20 hours per week during fall and spring semesters.

Key On-Campus Employment Regulations:

The on-campus employment regulations for students in F-1 status make several key points:

  • An F-1 international student who is otherwise maintaining legal non-immigrant status may be employed on-campus incident to status. This means that employment is authorized automatically on-campus as a part of the international student's F-1 status. No further authorization is needed.
  • F-1 students may not exceed 20 hours per week of on-campus employment while school is in-session in the fall and spring semesters. 
  • F-1 students may be employed full-time on-campus when school is not in-session or during the summer break.

Off-Campus Employment:

F-1 students may not be employed off-campus without permission. F-1 students are subject to federal restrictions regarding off-campus employment, and must follow carefully defined application procedures in order to be authorized for such employment. An international student’s being a member of a union (or considered an "employee" by the institution) has no bearing on these application procedures for off-campus employment. International students must abide by the terms of their non-immigrant student visas at all times.


If graduate students at Columbia vote to unionize, the unionization will have no effect on an international student's F-1 (or J-1) immigration status as long as the student is otherwise maintaining legal non-immigrant status (i.e., must maintain full-time enrollment at all times during fall and spring semesters; must not exceed 20 hours per week of on-campus employment during the fall and spring semesters; must not engage in unauthorized off-campus employment, etc.). This is true for international graduate students who are Teaching Assistants or Research Assistants.

If you have any questions or concerns, please contact an International Student Adviser at

Best wishes for a successful fall semester at Columbia.

Dr. David B. Austell, Associate Provost and Director, International Students and Scholars Office
August 29, 2016