A yearend bait and switch

The cruelest month, according to poet T.S. Eliot, is April. For a hefty proportion of the nation’s postdocs, however, along with countless other workers across the country, last year that dubious honor was split between November and December. After half a year of expecting that 1 December would bring raises in response to a new rule governing overtime pay, these workers found that, because of an injunction that a federal judge issued in the last week of November, the arrival of the planned start date for the raises instead brought disappointment. Other postdocs did see their salaries rise as some universities and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) went ahead and hiked postdoc pay. But even so, raises didn’t always result in more total income. The resulting confusion and inconsistency among institutions “so clearly illustrate how badly … change … is needed,” says Gary McDowell, executive director of the advocacy group Future of Research (FOR). 

The process leading to the bait-and-switch began in May, when the U.S. Department of Labor announced a new rule under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). It required that, come 1 December, workers earning less than $47,476 a year—including many postdocs—receive time-and-a-half pay for every hour they work beyond 40 per week. This essentially doubled the previous overtime threshold of $23,660. Of 96 institutions that gave information about their postdocs’ salary levels in response to a Council on Governmental Relations (COGR) survey, two-thirds reported that half of their postdocs fell below the new minimum. Another quarter said that at least 75% did. Just 2% claimed that 90% of their postdocs already earned above the new threshold.

Given postdocs’ long and unpredictable work days, most observers predicted that institutions would opt to give their postdocs across-the-board raises rather than try to track individuals’ hours and pay them for overtime. In anticipation, NIH also hiked its starting stipend to $47,484, just above the new threshold. Though below the $50,000 that experts have been calling a reasonable annual minimum for postdocs, this amount still looked to many observers like progress.

Then, on 22 November, federal judge Amos L. Mazzant of the Eastern District of Texas issued an injunction that put implementation of the new rule on hold until the court could decide lawsuits brought against it by a number of states and employers. The delay dropped the threshold for overtime payments back to the old level and relieved employers of the obligation to change their existing pay practices, at least temporarily. With no final decision on the lawsuit expected until well after the Trump administration takes office—and with administration appointees including the proposed secretary of labor and the Republican-controlled Congress apparently opposed to the change—observers believe that, even were the new rule to survive court scrutiny, it would likely be overturned.

Illustrative actions

Even before the injunction came into view, the situation was already complicated. McDowell found institutions’ reactions illustrative of attitudes across the academic world. “For years people have been recommending higher salaries [but] nobody did anything about it,” McDowell says. “Then this FLSA [rule] came through and institutions fought against it.” Universities and scholarly organizations “fought really hard”—but ultimately unsuccessfully—“to get [postdocs] removed” from the category of workers affected by the rule.

By 10 days before the expected 1 December change, FOR published further data based on ongoing queries to 341 universities. It found that 69.1% of postdocs were at institutions that intended to raise salaries. “The largest ten institutions in this list—Harvard, Stanford, Johns Hopkins, MIT, UC San Diego, U of Michigan, Columbia, Yale, U of Washington, and UC Berkeley—are all raising salaries or already have exempt salaries [that meet the new threshold], and account for about 30% of the postdoctoral workforce,” the report noted.

And some institutions that ostensibly hiked pay also added kickers, requiring postdocs to pay more for health care or otherwise “adjusting fringe benefits” in ways that produced “an overall reduction in salary,” McDowell adds. Some institutions, furthermore, are reportedly financing raises through at least partial cuts in support for postdoc offices and other services.

Once December arrived, FOR reported that the situation had become even more confused. Some institutions and the NIH went ahead with their plans to raise salaries despite the injunction, while others cancelled previously announced pay hikes. Still others left the decision to departments or individual lab chiefs. (For a rundown, click on “How institutional plans have/have not changed since the injunction” near the bottom of this page.) Three days before Christmas, FOR’s data indicated that nearly 10% of the postdocs who had been told they would receive holiday season raises instead got metaphorical lumps of coal in their financial stockings: The percentage of postdocs actually seeing higher salaries had shrunk from the expected 69.1% to 59.2%. The universities that delayed or rescinded raises “tend to be public,” McDowell says, and thus are probably suffering from financial stringency.

Unclear implications

Still, it’s “very encouraging” how quickly some institutions raised pay, including some that “explicitly say that they’re doing it to keep themselves competitive” in postdoc recruitment, McDowell says. In a competitive recruitment environment that now appears to favor higher pay—and thus higher cost—for postdocs, some institutions appear to be examining postdocs’ overall role and the structure of their lab workforces. Postdocs now required to use time sheets may find their roles becoming more like those of technicians, and labs with higher personnel costs may be thinking of rebalancing staff. “Nobody seems to have explicitly planned in terms of reducing postdocs straightaway,” McDowell says. Generally, “officials are concerned with covering the lab staff they have,” although he has heard of some layoffs. There are also “rumors from several places that in the faculty meetings … one of the very first suggestions is that the schools should look to expand graduate enrollment” based on thinking that “we’re going to end up having fewer postdocs, so now we need more grad students”—thus implicitly defining postdocs mainly as labor rather than trainees.

For now, though, the overall effects of the probably abortive FSLA rule change are unclear. Some postdocs clearly have benefited, at least for now. For others though, the episode provides another example that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

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