Will New Overtime Regulations Alter the U.S. Research Landscape?

Cash-strapped labs and universities rely on postdoctoral employees’ long hours

By Dana Wilkie Jul 14, 2016

Research conducted in U.S. labs and universities—work that relies heavily on highly educated postdoctoral employees—could suffer disruption and setbacks under the federal government’s new overtime regulations, labor experts say. 

While currently employed postdocs are likely to enjoy a jump in salary as their employers comply with rules just released by the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL), cash-strapped research facilities may ultimately hire fewer workers and curtail research.

“The DOL rule will have cost implications across the entire research enterprise, including research staff other than postdocs and salary adjustments for employees,” said Matthew Shick, director of government relations and regulatory counsel at the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC). 

Postdoctoral researchers conduct professional research after finishing their doctoral studies. A postdoc’s goal is to pursue additional research, training or teaching opportunities in order to advance into a career in academia or research. The overtime pay rule doubles the previous salary threshold below which employers must pay overtime to employees who work more than 40 hours a week. This means that employers that want their postdocs to continue putting in long hours must either implement timecard systems and pay them overtime or increase their salaries to the new threshold of $47,476—thousands of dollars more than many now earn. 

Postdoctoral research can be funded through an appointment with a salary, or through an appointment with a stipend or sponsorship award. The National Institutes of Health’s (NIH’s) main award for postdocs is the National Research Service Award (NRSA). These awards set stipends for the first three years—$43,692, $45,444 and $47,268—that fall below the new overtime threshold. In a commentary in The Huffington Post,  NIH Director Francis Collins and DOL Secretary Thomas Perez said that NIH expects to raise those stipends to exceed the threshold and that postdocs with more experience will likely receive a raise, too.

Research institutions generally use the NRSA pay level as a guideline, although in some fields, such as chemistry and agricultural research, median salaries are closer to $40,000.

Impact on Budgets 

The new rule could have a huge impact on the budgets of labs and universities, which have until Dec. 1 to comply. 

“In any scenario involving the management of workforces on constrained budgets, an increase of several thousand dollars per employee can be crippling,” said Brett Bartlett, partner with Seyfarth Shaw in Atlanta. “Colleges, universities and research organizations often operate postdoctoral fellowships and research programs on shoestring budgets, with patchworks of funding providing no more than the bare minimum necessary to allow competitive recruitment from a limited supply of talented, highly educated professionals who qualify for the programs [and this system is ] now placed at risk by the overtime-exemption’s increased salary requirement. To suggest that pay can simply be increased to exceed the new threshold is naïve.”  

The popular DrugMonkey blog, which reports on the U.S. biomedical research industry, noted that a $4,000 increase in salary could actually be a $5,000 to $6,000 boost when benefits are included. “This will take away jobs,” DrugMonkey predicted. “Fewer postdocs will be hired. Whether this is good or bad … well, opinions vary. But the math is unmistakable.” 

In their commentary, Collins and Perez acknowledged “concern” about how the biomedical research community, which relies on about 40,000 postdocs, would absorb the change. But they wrote that they were “confident the transition can be made in a way that does not harm—and actually serves to enrich—the future of our research enterprise.” 

In reader comments on their Huffington Post piece, however, many researchers expressed doubt that disruption could be avoided.

Loss of Postdoc Positions?

The change could mean that labs and universities will hire fewer postdoc researchers, said Harvard University chemistry professor George Whitesides. Perhaps, he said, there will be a shift toward using more graduate students. 

Another option is to keep postdocs who earn below the salary threshold limited to a strict 40-hour workweek. But Whitesides questioned how feasible this would be in a university or research environment where postdoctoral research is essential to advancing the scholarly mission of a host institution. The research is expected to result in publication in peer-reviewed academic journals or conferences. As such, the job requires dedication and often long hours. 

“I can’t imagine how this could work,” he said. “Keeping track of time and overtime would be impossible and counterproductive.” 

Shick agreed that it may make the most sense for employers to raise postdoc salaries above the $47,476 threshold. 

“Research is not conducive to a 9-to-5 schedule nor to tracking hours,” Shick said.  “Laboratory experiments can require days of sporadic work, and postdocs must also engage in scholarly activities and professional development outside of the lab.”

“Early mornings, late nights, all-nighters and organically developing ideas that require long weeks of work are not merely romantic fictionalizations of postdoctoral life,” Bartlett said. “They are the realities that help prove important theories, solve challenging problems and cure diseases.”

Moreover, postdocs whose salaries remain below the new threshold would lose their exempt status—which in the research world is a sign of status, said Philippe Weiss, managing director of​ Seyfarth Shaw at Work in Chicago. 

“Advancement and status—attained after years of hard work—are embraced and coveted,” he said. “Perceptions of autonomy and control matter, which is one reason many postdocs clamor for their own projects. The status shock of finding oneself reclassified to nonexempt—not to mention being asked to ‘clock-in’ for the first time—will create great consternation, if not full-scale upheaval.”

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