Nature | Research Highlights: Social Selection

US postdocs hope for overtime pay

A change to the rules on working hours could end up boosting salaries.

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A proposed regulation by US President Barack Obama that would extend overtime pay to millions of workers triggered fierce discussion among academics — including some who think that it could result in heftier pay for postdocs. If approved, the regulation would enable salaried workers who earn less than about US$50,400 per year to receive at least 1.5 times their usual rate for every extra hour worked beyond a 40-hour week. Francois Gould, an anatomy postdoc at Northeast Ohio Medical University in Rootstown, Ohio, tweeted:

But Belinda Huang, executive director of the National Postdoctoral Association in Washington DC, says that it is unclear whether the proposal would apply to postdocs and other scientists.

The issue attracted attention from scientists after Justin Kiggins, a neuroscience PhD student at the University of California, San Diego, wrote a blog post at The Spectroscope, speculating that the proposal could mean higher pay for postdocs. In an interview, Kiggins predicted that it would be more cost-effective for US institutions to raise postdoc salaries to the $50,400 threshold than to dole out overtime pay, especially for postdocs who earn the standard fellowship stipend of $42,840, set by the US National Institutes of Health (NIH).

In his comment on a DrugMonkey blog post about the proposal, former molecular biologist Lenny Teytelman — co-founder of the lab-methods website Protocols.io — predicted that the move would have significant consequences. “Yes, some postdocs will get fired. Yes, graduating PhDs will have more competition for fewer postdoc spots. Yes, many PIs will find it hard to pay the higher salary. No, none of those are compelling reasons for avoiding reasonable minimum salaries for postdocs.”

Dennis Eckmeier, a neuroscience postdoc at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York, was sceptical on Twitter about whether the proposed regulation would improve the lot of postdocs. In an interview, he said: “The whole system relies on highly qualified people working crazy hours for little salary for roughly a decade.” He thinks that funding agencies and universities will find ways to exempt postdocs from the rule.

Many researchers have debated how to improve the plight of postdocs, who often find themselves stuck in low-paying positions and facing a competitive market for permanent academic jobs. A committee convened by the US National Academies last year recommended raising the starting postdoc salary from $42,840 to $50,000. Paying for overtime is another idea, but until Obama’s proposal is finalized and approved, it is hard to say whether postdocs would be eligible for this kind of pay, Huang explains. She notes that the current rules of the Fair Labor Standards Act exempt “scientists” from overtime pay, but not “technicians”. In her opinion, across-the-board increases in stipends would be a more reasonable way to ensure that postdocs are paid at a level that is compatible with their education and experience.

The US labour department is accepting comments on the proposal for the next two months (see go.nature.com/ywuqcc), and Kiggins encourages postdocs to weigh in. With enough support, he says, postdocs could be explicitly included in the regulations, making it more difficult for universities to find ways to avoid paying overtime. Kiggins estimates that postdocs make up about 1% of the almost 5 million workers that Obama predicts could benefit from the new proposal. “That isn’t trivial,” he says.

For more, see www.nature.com/socialselection.

Journal name:
Nature
Volume:
523,
Pages:
259
Date published:
()
DOI:
doi:10.1038/523259f

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