Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, has agreed to settle a class-action lawsuit over which a massage therapist and approximately 20 of her peers disputed their independent contractor status with the school.
The workers will receive back pay in addition to being formally reclassified as university employees.
Kara Donohoe, a massage therapist who worked for Harvard's Center for Wellness since 2004, claimed in January 2016 she was entitled to paid time off, tuition reimbursements and other miscellaneous benefits afforded to staff employees, according to The Boston Globe. According to her complaint, school officials determine her rates and appointments and prohibit her from accepting tips or breaks, an alleged violation of Massachusetts wage law.
Harvard recently announced it was settling the lawsuit and will reclassify select workers at the Center for Wellness as employees, granting some of them up to $30,000 apiece in back pay, according to the Globe.
Employees working at least 17.5 hours per week, like Donohoe, will also be eligible to join the Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers.
“I was just talking with a co-worker about having to take so many snow days off this past two weeks without pay and how great it will be as an employee not to have to worry about that," Donohoe said, according to the Globe. "I’m really looking forward to being able to take a vacation and give my body a rest without giving my bank account a rest as well.”
The state law explains that a contractor is “free from control and direction” with their duties falling “outside the usual course of the business of the employer.” Donohoe's lawyer, Shannon Liss-Riordan, said this definition did not accurately categorize Donohoe and her peers.
“It is extremely challenging to obtain actual reclassification,” Liss-Riordan said. “Harvard is a role model for many employers out there, and I hope other employers take note of how Harvard handled the situation.”
In a statement, Harvard said the settlement represents "a mutually agreeable closure to the case in order to avoid protracted litigation," adding that it also highlights the meaningful contributions massage therapists and acupuncturists make to the Center for Wellness.