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The Black Hole

No more overtime for low-paid postdocs in the U.S. – will Canada follow suit?


In December of this year, a very interesting law comes into effect in the United States. In an effort to address unfair overtime hours across the country, the new law makes it illegal for people to work unpaid overtime hours if their salary is below (a surprisingly high) threshold of $47,476. As our readers have heard over and over from myself and Jonathan, the wages of early career scientists are low and the hours are long… so this new law will be very interesting. Indeed, there are swathes of postdoctoral fellows who are currently in this position – paid less than $47,476 and working more than 40 hours in a week.

As the website announcing the changes says, employers will be presented with three options:

  • Pay time-and-a-half for overtime
  • Raise salaries above the new threshold
  • Limit worker’s hours to 40 per week

In a bold move, the National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins has publicly announced that the “NIH will increase the awards for postdoctoral NRSA recipients to levels above the threshold” – representing a substantial pay increase for this cohort. This is fantastic news and should be applauded.  Will this set the trend across the USA to increase salaries of young scientists?  Or will institutions find clever / unethical ways to skirt the new law.  Either way, it will be a very interesting period of implementation and reaction.

Unique challenges in academic settings
There are some difficulties in academic settings. First of all, what constitutes a work hour in a laboratory setting? Does teaching “on the side” count? How about that two hour coffee meeting with a potential collaborator? Or what about the three hours on the weekend you spent “thinking” about your project?  Quantifying how many hours each and every scientist works will be incredibly difficult. As Collins and Perez state in their article (and I tend to agree): “Biomedical science, by its very nature, is not work that neatly falls into hourly units or shifts. So, from our vantage point, it seems that the only option consistent with the professional nature of scientific work is to increase salaries above the threshold.”

A second issue that follows will be how to afford this pay increase.  For example, what happens when a grant that has already been awarded has insufficient funding to afford the pay increases that these new rules will demand? Let’s say a charity pays $40K for a scientist to carry out a project and it was award pre-rule – will that scientist be told they can only work 40 hours simply because the money is not there to increase their salary and the rules say they cannot work overtime?   How will hours be monitored and policed?

Reality Check
While the NIH is clearly going to do something about it, I suspect the reality for most employers of young scientists will be to simply tell their people that they are not expected (nor required) to work more than 40 hours. People in scientific research will of course realise that this is well below the number of hours required to push an academic career along and will consequently “volunteer” heaps of extra time (at home or at the lab) in order to push their projects along. The (sad) reality being that nothing much will change. That is unless there are strict entry/exit tabs put on people and they are forced out of the building when they have worked 40 hours…but I can’t see this happening.

What we should instead hope and strive for is that this new law will lend visibility to the problem (lots of extra hours, not lots of pay) and encourage funders to consider how this cadre of workers is remunerated in the future. The NIH has taken the lead on this with their fellowships, but will all NIH grants follow suit? Will other funding agencies jump on the wagon? Will other countries take note and set their own minimum salary threshholds?

As I said above, it will be very interesting to watch this space – we particularly encourage our USA-based colleagues to write and share their thoughts on this new rule.

David Kent
Dr. David Kent is a principal investigator at the York Biomedical Research Institute at the University of York, York, UK. He trained at Western University and the University of British Columbia before spending 10 years at the University of Cambridge, UK where he ran his research group until 2019. His laboratory's research focuses on the fundamental biology of blood stem cells and how changes in their regulation lead to cancers. David has a long history of public engagement and outreach including the creation of The Black Hole in 2009.
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  1. AR / June 15, 2016 at 10:15

    Working a 40 hour work week in academia is good way to make sure that you never get a job. Regardless of what rules/guidelines/policies are, its impossible to work that little and still be productive enough to generate output and secure funding.