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New overtime rules are good for postdocs — and the missions of their universities

REUTERS/Peter Nicholls
I believe that fair wages and working conditions for postdocs would support the research and educational missions of the institutions we work for.

The Department of Labor has announced revisions to rules pursuant to the Fair Labor Standards Act that will make millions of Americans eligible for overtime pay, including postdoctoral researchers who make less than $47,476. This is an incredible opportunity to improve the lives of academics who work long hours, but as Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez and National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins have said, this could also “enrich the future of our research enterprise.”

I am a part of that enterprise. I am a postdoctoral associate in agronomy and plant genetics at the University of Minnesota. My research examines the role of soil microbial communities in organic and sustainable agriculture. I am also the parent of two young children. The cost of the child care that allows me to work is approximately half of my current salary. I support raising the pay threshold because postdoctoral researchers are highly educated and specialized workers who can and should be paid a fair wage.

This is not an opinion shared by everyone. In a recent letter to the DOL [PDF], representatives for colleges and universities expressed concerns about increased costs, and intimated that postdocs might also lose flexibility and autonomy if they had to monitor their hours. 

More than full time, for low pay

By rallying around criticism of the updated rules, university administrators are admitting quite baldly that postdocs are basically required to work more than full time for low pay. Under the new rule, universities would have to either pay postdocs for overtime or increase our salaries over the $47,476 threshold. Regardless, the new rules are beneficial for postdoc researchers.

As salaried employees paid over the proposed threshold, we could be fairly compensated for our work. We are skilled workers in the prime of our adulthood. We are at a stage of our lives where we should be able to support a home and a family, and at a stage of our careers where we are highly productive and often irreplaceable — if a postdoc leaves a project before its completion, the research will often go unfinished and unpublished for lack of their expertise. The services that we provide to the university are extremely valuable and should be compensated accordingly.

The changes can benefit postdocs even if base pay is not raised. The new rules mean that postdocs making less than the new threshold will be eligible for overtime pay. This is an important step toward adjusting job expectations to fit within a 40-hour workweek and recognizing that employees who are expected to work longer, irregular hours should be compensated accordingly. It would help break some of the unhealthy overwork habits that are so prevalent in academia by recognizing the reality that academics are not some elite class of men with wives or housekeepers at home supporting their careers, but people with personal and family needs and responsibilities outside of the workplace.

Investing in value

As a proud supporter of University of Minnesota Academics United, organizing with SEIU, I believe that fair wages and working conditions for postdocs would support the research and educational missions of the institutions we work for. Universities have said that any increase in expenses would harm students in the form of increased tuition and reduced services. Yet they do not use this threat when they want to hire administrators and coaches at exorbitant salaries. They simply claim that they need to invest in high­quality personnel, and pay competitive wages to attract and retain them. There is absolutely no reason why this same argument should not apply to the other highly trained, professional, and often irreplaceable academic staff of the university. Large institutions deal with very large budgets, within which they can set priorities and allocate resources accordingly. Postdocs provide enormous value to universities, and their well-being should be a priority.

I commend the Department of Labor and NIH for their leadership on this issue. If postdocs are going to be fairly paid, then we must expect the same leadership of our colleges and universities.

Adria Fernandez is a postdoctoral associate at the University of Minnesota.

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