International students in the US
The Department of Homeland Security notes that students may continue to engage in on-campus employment remotely. Source: Scott Eisen/Getty Images/AFP

You’re not in the US but you’re remotely working for your university. Can international students who are not physically in the country get paid for their online college student jobs?

The answer would be a “yes”, according to guidance by the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which was last updated on Aug. 7, 2020.

COVID-19 has forced university campuses to close and for some on-campus employment opportunities to be conducted remotely. 

DHS said, “If the current on-campus employment opportunity has transitioned to remote work or the employment can be done through remote means, students may continue to engage in on-campus employment remotely.”

They add that schools should be able to explain how the students are providing services associated with the employment while not at the location of the employer.

Not all universities are onboard

International students in the US

Some of the country’s top universities have established temporary policies to support international students for remote on-campus employment if they are unable to return to the US. Source: DOUGLAS MAGNO/AFP

Some universities including Rutgers University, Yale University, the University of Pennsylvania, and the University of Illinois have established temporary policies to support international students in the US for remote on-campus employment. 

According to Inside Higher Ed, Columbia University has made the decision not to employ or pay students for teaching or research assistantships while abroad “to avoid jeopardising international students’ visa status”.

An open letter to Columbia by the Graduate Workers of Columbia condemned the decision.

“We call on Columbia University to lift the obligation to return to the US for scholars and student workers,” said the letter.

“Denying teaching assistants, research assistants, graduate instructors, and other student employees their stipends and pay while they are abroad during a pandemic is cruel and unnecessary.”

They add that there is “no legal basis” why students residing outside the US cannot be employed, adding that many institutions have already announced working remotely from abroad and receiving pay is an option. 

Law experts say ‘aye’ to remote on-campus employment

Speaking to Inside Higher Ed, Stephen Yale-Loehr, an expert on student visa law and a professor of immigration practice at Cornell, said he was not aware of a visa-related reason a university couldn’t hire non-citizens located abroad.

“Arguably, if a university hires someone to work overseas, the institution has to comply with the tax and labour laws of that country,” said Yale-Loehr. 

“That can be complicated, depending on the country. However, I don’t know of any visa-related reasons why a university can’t employ a non-citizen overseas, as long as the work is properly documented and the employee and the university comply with the relevant visa rules.”

Echoing Yale-Loehr is Elizabeth Goss, an immigration lawyer who also specialises in academic visa issues.

Goss said she was not aware of a relevant visa-related restriction and said she suspects the reasoning for the policy may relate to international taxation issues, which are “quite complicated and understandably fraught for institutions”.

Columbia appears to be backing away from its policy announcement, saying in a statement that administrators “are actively exploring options that will allow the university to pay service stipends to graduate students who are abroad and have valid US employment authorisations; we hope to have a resolution shortly.”

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