ASBMB weighs in on wage rules for postdocs

The society supports the Department of Labor’s proposed increase in minimum salary for exempt employees
Dulce Hiraci Gomez
Nov. 28, 2023

The American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology sent recommendations to the Department of Labor on Nov. 7 in response to the proposed changes to the Fair Labor Standards Act that would improve working conditions for postdocs.

A major obstacle in retaining STEM talent is financial well-being, with 95% of postdocs reporting that their professional and personal lives are negatively affected by their salary. Up to 30% of postdocs say they are unable to put money aside for their financial security.

The DOL released proposed changes to the FLSA on Sept. 8 to increase the minimum annual salary for exempt employees to $55,068 from $35,568.

Also, within the FLSA, the DOL permits an employer to determine if an employee is employed at an hourly rate or salaried. This distinction can affect an employee’s eligibility for benefits, including health coverage and paid vacation/sick leave.

Ann West is the associate vice president for research development and a professor at the University of Oklahoma. She leads the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology’s Public Affairs Advisory Committee.

“(Postdocs) deserve to be paid a fair wage with proper benefits, and the ASBMB recognizes and supports the DOL efforts in raising the salary minimum.  However, grant holders and institutions need some lead time to plan for and implement such a raise program,” West said

The society made two recommendations to the DOL:

  1. Create an implementation plan for the raise in minimum salary for exempt employees.

  2. Ensure the ruling does not result in reductions in benefits.

Minimum wage for exempt employees

The DOL facilitates and enforces the FLSA by establishing the federal standards for minimum wage that affect workers in the private and government sectors at the local, federal and state level.

Professional employees, such as postdoctoral researchers, are exempt employees who are paid an established monthly or annual salary and are expected to fulfill the responsibilities of their position regardless of the hours worked.

Postdoctoral scholars are in a temporary mentored position following the achievement of a terminal degree, gaining specialized experience prior to pursuing an independent career. Postdocs are essential in carrying out the scientific research that will be published and often used by the primary investigator for the next grant application submission.

“Postdocs are absolutely vital to our national research enterprise and are the next generation of scientists who will pursue careers in academia, industry, science policy and many other fields,” West said.  

Postdocs report salary ranges between $39,000 and $55,000, which barely equates to a living wage in most states for one adult with no dependents. The United States National Postdoc survey revealed that in 2016, depending on gender, 63% to 68% were married/partnered and/or 22% to 31% had children.

Amid reports of faculty members struggling to fill postdoc positions, the National Institutes of Health created a working group in November 2022 to re-envision NIH-supported postdoctoral training. In a preliminary report published in August 2023 based on 3,250 written comments, 87% of respondents expressed concerns about salary and 37% were concerned with employment status and benefits.

Retaining benefits

Along with postdocs being underpaid, benefits vary drastically by institution. Benefits can include health insurance, retirement plans, childcare access and funds, which are critical for their financial security. In Nature’s 2023 postdoc survey, 58% were offered parental leave and 17% had subsidized childcare included in their benefits packages. The Nature survey also reported postdocs between 31 and 40 years old were disillusioned with the research workforce, hours and low pay, resulting in a shift in priorities and personal career goals.

The ASBMB urged the DOL to modify the FLSA ruling to ensure that the employers do not reduce benefits for exempt employees to compensate for the increase in salary, as both elements are essential to quality of life.

ASBMB Public Affairs Director Sarina Neote said, “While the proposed changes to the FLSA will not solve all the challenges the next generation of scientists faces, it will certainly push the scientific community to start developing solutions with this new minimum wage requirement. It is vital that the science community continue ensuring that the STEM workforce is attractive and equitable in this country’s bioeconomy.”

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Dulce Hiraci Gomez

Dulce Hiraci Gomez is the ASBMB's policy analyst.

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