Higher postdoctoral pay mandate triggers financial concerns

Media Credit: Hatchet file photo by Dan Rich | Photo Editor

George Younes, the president of the GW Postdoc Association and a postdoctoral fellow, said he wasn't surprised officials kept the promise to raise 55 postdoctoral fellows' salaries, even fter a federal judge temporarily blocked the regulation that required the University to raise their pay.

As universities across the country try to rake in already-strained research dollars, they’re faced with another challenge: how to pay researchers.

A new federal law to increase the pay provision for postdoctoral fellows has the University discussing ways to raise the salaries for 55 of those fellows. But faculty members and postdoctoral fellows say they’re concerned about where funding will come from and how the new pay mandate could impact research – an area of top priority for the University.

The Fair Labor Standards Act, a law that includes overtime pay provisions for employees, previously entitled all U.S. workers to overtime pay unless they were exempt because they were paid preset salaries of at least $23,660 per year, according to the Department of Labor. In May, the department announced a new rule to increase the overtime pay threshold to $47,476 starting on Dec. 1. Postdoctoral fellows’ salaries likely could fall within that gap.

Postdoctoral fellows are key in research – they work directly with faculty mentors on larger research projects after they complete their doctoral studies and can help keep research on track while mentors juggles other duties, like teaching or participating in institutional governance.

University spokeswoman Maralee Csellar said the changes to the FLSA overtime rule will impact research staff across the U.S., and GW will continue to classify postdoctoral fellows as exempt from overtime pay by meeting the minimum federal salary.

Principal investigators – the researchers who officially receive and oversee research grants – have the option to submit supplemental funding requests to their sponsors, but the sponsors do not have to provide additional funding. Current grants that support postdoctoral fellows will need to be rebudgeted to absorb salary increases, Csellar said.

“If project budgets cannot accommodate the changes, then a PI will need to work with their department or school to address gaps in funding,” Csellar said. “All new proposals for grants and contracts will take the new salary guidelines into account when budgeting.”

The Office of the Vice President for Research provides financial support and online resources to the GW Postdoc Association, and research officials are available to assist the investigators with rebudgeting, Csellar said.

Officials have “no plans” to let any postdoctoral fellows go as a result of the change, Csellar said.

‘Happy postdoc, happy PI’
Since University President Steven Knapp came to GW nearly a decade ago, he has set his sights on transforming GW into a top-tier research institution, creating the position of vice president for research in 2009 and bringing in hundreds of millions of dollars in research funding. These fellows are key in allowing faculty to take on larger research projects, faculty members said.

Harald Griesshammer, an associate professor of physics and a member of the Faculty Senate, first publicly raised the postdoctoral pay issue at this month’s Faculty Senate meeting.

Griesshammer said the increase is a “huge deal” because postdoctoral fellows are typically working 50 to 60 hours a week, and it would be impractical for them to be paid overtime. About two-thirds of postdoctoral fellows at the University already meet the new federal salary requirement, but 55 people would need a salary raise to meet the new minimum pay, he said.

“The postdoc is the one doing the late shifts,” Griesshammer said. “They are training and educating the graduate students. They are training and educating the undergraduates. For many projects you need somebody who can just concentrate on the research, so the postdocs are the ones who are actually doing the work, and they have to get a decent pay for that.”

The National Institutes of Health has made provisions in its budget to cover the increase, but other federal agencies have not, Griesshammer said. He said he predicts that the University and principal investigators will need to find about $250,000 over a year and half or two years to fund this change.

“The important message is that the postdocs must be safe in their positions,” Griesshammer said. “This is a federally mandated minimum. There is nothing we can do about this.”

Provost Forrest Maltzman said at the meeting that he has communicated with leaders at other universities to discuss how they are addressing the new requirement.

Some researchers are addressing the mandate by reallocating funds within their grants to cover additional salary expenses, and in some instances, the NIH is making adjustments, Maltzman said.

“At this point, I think those are the various options that are available,” Maltzman said. “This is not the first time that the government has done actions that are difficult for us to comply with.”

George Younes, the president and founder of the GW Postdoc Association and a current postdoctoral fellow, said this issue should have been tackled sooner because of the fellows’ integral role in research. Without a sufficient salary, they can’t do their jobs properly, he said.

“It’s about damned time that the postdoc salaries get a bump,” Younes said. “You live in D.C. It’s a very expensive city so any kind of more income is going to bring a smile to our faces. The idea is happy postdoc, happy PI.”

Younes said even though faculty will have to find more room in their budgets for salary increases, the new pay regulations will better support postdoctoral fellows.

“If you can take the financial stress away from the postdoc, you’re going to come to the lab happier, they’re going to have less on their minds so they can focus more on their research and be more productive,” Younes said. “I cannot see how the faculty are not going to be happy about that.”

In a 2014 report published by the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering and the Institute of Medicine, the national median postdoctoral pay for recent science, engineering, and health Ph.D.s was $43,000.

National consequences
Officials and postdoctoral fellows at other universities said fellows deserve increased pay, but some are concerned about where the money will come from.

Kate Sleeth, the chairwoman of the National Postdoctoral Association board, said it could be difficult for universities to come up with increased funding this year, meaning that some institutions will inevitably have to lay off postdoctoral fellows.

“We completely understand that it is challenging for the institutions,” Sleeth said. “We certainly hope that next year we don’t see a decrease in the number of postdoc positions available.”

Geoffrey Rojas, the president of the University’s Postdoctoral Association at the University of Minnesota, said if universities had made faculty aware that there was going to be a change when they were writing grants, they could have asked for more grant money.

Some postdoctoral fellows at University of Minnesota could be laid off because there isn’t money to support the increase, he said.

“If the government and universities had been taking the concerns of the National Postdoc Association or advocacy groups seriously we could have adjusted for this change much, much more slowly,” Rojas said.

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