Postdoc Reactions to the FLSA Fiasco – Part 1

Postdoc Reactions to the FLSA Fiasco – Part 1

 

This is a guest post by Future of Research board member, Adriana Bankston.

Although postdocs are highly skilled, PhD-level scientists, they have been a historically underpaid segment of the biomedical workforce. While advocating for increased postdoctoral salaries had been previously attempted, not much has changed, and there was still not much hope in terms of better pay in 2016. This was about to change on December 1st, 2016, when the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) ruling from the Department of Labor was to result in increased salaries for full-time postdocs from $23,660 to $47,476 per year.

At Future of Research, we have been tracking the national compliance of institutions with the FLSA ruling at various timepoints before this date, and subsequently published the results in F1000Research on November 17th, 2016. On November 22nd, 2016, a preliminary injunction against the Department of Labor was granted nationwide, delaying the FLSA implementation. Since that time, Future of Research has been once again tracking how institutions responded to the injunction nationally. To get an idea of how postdocs felt in the current state of the research enterprise, in this first blog post, we spoke with postdocs at various universities whose salaries were raised following the injunction.

 

The effects of salary raises

As expected, continuing to raise salaries despite the injunction was received positively, as it significantly helped some postdocs improve their own life situations. “The extra money is particularly helpful for my situation because my husband has a job in Nashville, and I’m completing my postdoctoral training at Yale University. Because of my salary, we are able to afford our apartments and occasional flights to visit each other. If we couldn’t have afforded this situation, one of us would have had to compromise our career and personal happiness,”  says Rebecca Adams, a postdoc at Yale University, who is currently supported by an F32.  

Other postdocs across the country also appreciated the raise given the time commitment and the generation of knowledge that result from the postdoc position. An anonymous postdoc at UTSW stated that postdocs’ pay increase is a step in the right direction to reward researchers working hard and unusually long hours to move science forward.” Mark Kittisopikul, another postdoc living in Dallas, TX, agreed that a commensurate salary would help to mitigate the considerable cost of dedicating so much time to this pursuit.” Finally, Nicholas Bauer, a postdoc at Massachusetts General Hospital, also reiterated that postdocs are the front lines of academic research, and our role in the generation of knowledge has not generally been compensated well.” Therefore there seems to be a general consensus that postdocs are not being compensated enough.

Postdocs who received salary raises despite the injunction appreciated what their institution did for them. “At the end of the day, I came away from the FLSA ruling and subsequent injunction with appreciation for my present situation and confidence that my institution was willing to lead in this matter and compete for talent,” further states Mark Kittisopikul, living in Dallas, TX. This consideration is an important one, in that top universities who are raising salaries may this be able to attract the best talent there. Indeed, Mark Kittisopikul continued by stating that raising salaries will help retain talented postdoctoral researchers in scientific endeavors due to the new focus on compensation.” Once again the advantage of raising salaries was obvious for top universities.

Taking this even further, postdocs have now become more aware of the state of postdoc salaries/cost of living at the national level. “The ruling and injunction really put a spotlight on how young scientists are being compensated”….”this induced graduate students and postdocs to become more aware of compensation issues and equipped them with information they could use when considering a position,” according to Mark Kittisopikul. He also stated openly that this matter made him think more broadly about workers’ issues in terms of “why postdoctoral salaries are set at certain levels and how this compared to other workers.” He then concluded that he is also now more aware of “how the cost of living varies geographically but postdoctoral salaries do not vary similarly.” This is another positive outcome of the FLSA ruling.

But while salary raises helped postdocs everywhere, the general consensus was that they should be raised even higher given the high cost of living in some areas (such as Boston and the Bay area). Kevin Van Bortle, a postdoc at Stanford University, agreed that around the university, the “cost of living is incredibly high and so salaries are a little higher than the rest of the country, albeit not enough to match the increased cost of living.” Callie Wigington, another postdoc at Stanford, who is supported by an F32, agreed that “due to the extremely high cost of living in the Bay Area, this is a welcomed increase, but unfortunately is still not enough.” The same situation occurs in Boston, where Nicholas Bauer, a postdoc at Massachusetts General Hospital, agrees that fair compensation is not enough. While he did state that “the FLSA-spurred increase in NIH stipends, which my institution is fortunately keeping, provides a little nice relief”…“in cities like Boston, it should really be raised even further.” The issue of cost of living should therefore be taken into account when raising postdoc salaries.

 

Different perspectives and a call to action

The FLSA chaos gave postdocs different perspectives on the subject of postdoc salaries. Mark Kittisopikul, a postdoc living in Dallas, TX, states that this helped him “view the issue from the perspective of a lab head.” As a result he also became “curious on how institutions, including my current workplace, would respond.” In a different part of the country, Danielle Lyons, a postdoc at the University of Kentucky, agreed and stated that here also “many [postdocs] question the benefits and wonder how professors will be able to pay for two postdocs with the higher salary.” Making postdocs aware of various ways in which the FLSA ruling and injunction can affect them is a positive spin on this complicated issue.

Another positive spin is that, for postdocs, the situation sparked a call to action. Mark Kittisopikul appreciated the salary raise “despite living in a relatively inexpensive part of the country with correspondingly modest wages according to the U.S. Census”. This motivated him to publicize this fact, and he stated ”I made the decision by my institution to raise salaries as well known as I could. I knew that spreading this news would make my institution competitive in recruiting excellent researchers and potential colleagues.” This is an important point in the considerations of future PhD graduates will make when choosing the institution in which to pursue postdoctoral training.

 

Conclusions

Despite receiving higher compensation, postdocs recognized that the raises will not fix all the other issues for postdocs. Kevin Van Bortle of Stanford University stated as follows “I agree that postdocs are underpaid, but I also appreciate the flexibility that a postdoc position offers in terms of learning new skill sets, so in my opinion it’s a unique time that is best to make the most of. But that’s also easy for me to say when I don’t have a family to support!” This issue was among several also brought up by Callie Wigington, who agrees that “the increase in postdoc salaries is somewhat helpful, but not a complete answer to the problems facing postdocs, such as student and personal loans, increasing housing costs, and child care costs.” Therefore many issues related to the postdoc position, besides compensation, cannot be solved by giving postdocs more money. We hope this post will raise awareness to general issues that postdocs are facing nationally.

 

This is the first of two posts.

 

ACTION: There is a new call for comments in a Department of Labor Request for Information here (guidelines for empoyer comments are here). You are able to make comments until September 25th.

We are rvevising our paper on the FLSA and postdocs – check it out here, the revised version should be up very soon. We tracked how institutions responded to the injunction and removal of a federal mandate for salary raises for postdocs, particularly given that the NIH decided to keep their new NRSA postdoctoral salary levels at the levels set by the FLSA updates.

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