Postdoc pay to increase due to new overtime rule

Postdocs in the United States earning less than $47,476 a year are in for raises later this year, thanks to a new regulation on overtime pay announced yesterday by the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL). The long-awaited new rule requires that employers provide overtime pay of time and a half for work over 40 hours per week to professional employees who earn less than $913 a week or $47,476 a year, with certain exceptions. (The previous threshold was $23,660 a year.) The rule will go into effect on 1 December unless Congress votes to overturn it, which is unlikely.

In response to the new rule, National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director Francis Collins announced in an article co-authored with U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez that NIH will increase the salary levels for the first 3 years of the Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Awards (NRSA)—which also serve as a benchmark for many other funding sources—“to levels above the threshold.” For the majority of postdocs who are not funded by NRSA fellowships, universities will have to determine for themselves how they will meet the rule’s requirements, either by increasing salaries or paying overtime. How various institutions will manage this and the other effects of these changes are as yet unclear.

The rule’s exceptions, who are exempt from the overtime provisions regardless of how much they earn, include numerous employees of higher educational institutions, including teachers (from graduate assistants through tenured professors), coaches, and graduate and undergraduate students—but not postdocs. According to a DOL fact sheet, “[p]ostdoctoral researchers in the sciences who engage only in research activities and do not teach are not covered by the teaching exemption. These employees are generally considered professional employees and are subject to the salary threshold for exemption from overtime.” Postdocs who do teach, however, can be covered by the teaching exemption. (Update: . DOL has updated the fact sheet to clarify that “[p]ostdoctoral researchers in the sciences are not covered by the teaching exemption.”) “DOL has been working closely with NIH regarding their mutual interest in this area,” the fact sheet adds. 

“Under the new … overtime threshold,” Collins and Perez write in their article, “universities, teaching hospitals, and other institutions that employ postdocs have a choice: they can carefully track their fellows’ hours and pay overtime, or they can raise their salaries to levels above the threshold and thereby qualify them for exemption [from the need to pay overtime]. Biomedical science, by its very nature, is not work that neatly falls into hourly units or shifts. So, from our vantage point, it seems that the only option consistent with the professional nature of scientific work is to increase salaries above the threshold.”

“We are fully supportive of the increased salary threshold for postdocs,” Collins and Perez continue. “At the same time, we recognize that research institutions that employ postdocs will need to readjust the salaries they pay to postdocs that are supported through other means, including other types of NIH research grants. While supporting the increased salaries will no doubt present financial challenges to NIH and the rest of the U.S. biomedical research enterprise, we plan to work closely with leaders in the postdoc and research communities to find creative solutions to ensure a smooth transition.”

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