Thousands of junior scientists who spend long nights and weekends running experiments in biomedical labs are in line for a pay hike, thanks to a whopping change to federal overtime pay regulations. But many say they’re still being exploited.
Postdoctoral fellows, scientists with doctoral degrees who work in supervisors’ labs, are among the 4.2 million Americans set to benefit from a change in labor law announced last week.
Most salaried workers who make under $47,476 per year — including an estimated 37,000 to 40,000 postdocs in the biomedical sciences — will become eligible for overtime pay in December, unless their employers boost their salaries.
That change has sent hospitals and universities scrambling to find money in research budgets to make those changes in the next seven months. Some have warned it will force institutions to hire fewer postdocs.
The new rules will likely throw some postdocs a few thousand extra dollars per year. But members of the Boston Postgraduate Association, which includes postdocs from 14 local universities, research institutes, and hospitals, said that’s a small step: They’re calling for a $63,000 minimum salary to reflect the cost of living and the skills they built during graduate school.
“We’re not being rewarded for this additional training and experience,” said Tobias Otto, a cofounder of the group and a postdoc at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. “We’re just basically cheap labor.”
Postdocs say they rely on shared housing, money from family, or spouse’s incomes to get by.
“My entire take-home pay goes to child care,” said Elizabeth Buttermore, a postdoc at Boston Children’s Hospital, who just had a baby boy.
“I mooch off of my parents,” said Amy Tsurumi, a postdoc at Massachusetts General Hospital. “It’s really bad on my self-esteem,” she said. “I’m still a baby, like a dependent.”
Postdocs’ quest for better pay gained support last week from Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, and Thomas Perez, US labor secretary.
Postdocs “are generally paid salaries that do not adequately reflect their advanced education and expertise,” they wrote in an op-ed in Huffington Post supporting the new rules.
The prospect of a national pay hike for tens of thousands of scientists has prompted “considerable concern in both the public and private sectors,” Collins and Perez acknowledged.
The Association of American Medical Colleges argued that postdocs should be exempt from getting overtime pay, and that any changes to the overtime salary threshold should be gradual. “A sudden change has impacts across the entire research system, many of which are still unknown and will require careful scrutiny,” Matthew Shick, director of government relations and regulatory counsel, cautioned in an email Friday.
Postdoc salaries are often pegged to stipends set by NIH National Research Service Award grants, which are based on years of experience. For the first three years after graduate school, those stipends — $43,692, $45,444, and $47,268 — all fall below the new standard for overtime pay. The NIH plans to boost those salaries above $47,476, Collins announced. But that would not help postdocs paid by other NIH grants or nongovernmental sources, and it’s not clear how soon those higher payments would start.
Postdocs work an average of 53 hours per week, according to one estimate. Overtime pay will kick in after 40 hours under the new rules, but postdocs’ time sheets would be tough to tally because lab experiments can call for odd hours.
Otto, who studies genetics and biology and coleads Dana-Farber’s postdoctoral association, recalled running one experiment in which he had to inject mice every 12 hours. He had to show up at the lab at 8 a.m. and 8 p.m., seven days a week, for a month.
“You cannot say, now it’s the weekend” and skip work, said Otto, who after seven years as a postdoc makes $54,211.
Mudit Chaand, a postdoc who studies malaria at Harvard’s public health school, said he spends at least nine hours per day in the lab and makes $46,500. Some experiments have placed him in the lab for up to 30 hours at a time, sorting cells into the wee hours of the morning.
Harvard’s medical school and affiliated hospitals employ over 5,000 postdocs; its public health school has 350. They all tie postdoc salaries to the NIH levels, though at the discretion of their supervisor, some postdocs may make more.
Harvard University and several of its affiliated hospitals said they are still reviewing the new federal overtime policy and figuring out how to comply with it by Dec. 1.
Meanwhile, postdoc groups around Longwood have been quietly campaigning to raise their salaries.
How much should they be paid?
A 2014 report from the National Academy of Sciences called for a $50,000 minimum. Adjusting for the cost of living in one of the nation’s most overpriced cities, the Boston Postdoctoral Association arrived at a recommended starting salary of $63,000.
Mass. General, Harvard’s largest teaching hospital, frowned on that suggestion.
NIH grants “do not provide more money for Boston just because there is a higher cost of living here,” wrote Harry Orf, senior vice president for research, in an email. The NIH salary cap for faculty, which is set at $185,100 nationwide, does not account for Boston’s higher cost of living, he added.
Cost of living “has always been a consideration when postdocs and faculty are being recruited to the area,” he wrote, “but the quality of the science and education here is so outstanding … we remain highly competitive for the best postdocs and faculty.”
Postdocs say they are frustrated by seeing people without graduate degrees outpace their earnings.
Raises that may come from the new federal ruling will “help a little bit,” Otto said. But “we’re far away from what would be appropriate or required in our view.”