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San Diego Researchers Could Receive Pay Raise

Photo by Peter / Flickr

UC San Diego, April 29, 2011.

Scientists in early stages of their careers could receive a substantial pay raise under new overtime rules. But it’s not yet clear UC San Diego postdocs will be affected.

Scientists in the early stages of their career could receive a substantial pay raise under the U.S. Department of Labor's new overtime rules. But it's not yet clear how postdoctoral researchers, or "postdocs," at UC San Diego will be affected.

Adam Wier, a UCSD postdoc doing research on gene expression, applauded the new rules, which make workers earning less than $47,476 per year eligible for overtime pay. He expects UCSD will eventually agree to raise all postdoc salaries above the threshold.

"This new ruling will help encourage more people to actively pursue the sciences," said Wier, who is also a steward with UAW Local 5810, the union representing postdocs employed by the University of California.

"There are a lot of people who are dropping out of this because they simply don’t have enough money to live and support a family," he said. "Anything can help, and I think this is a good first step."

UCSD representatives declined an interview request. They said the university has not yet worked out how it will approach the new rules.

Campus officials didn't provide numbers on how many postdocs UCSD employs. By the union's own count, around 1,200 postdocs work at UCSD, more than at any other campus in the UC system.

Postdocs are scientists who work in academic labs after obtaining a Ph.D., often in the hope of securing a faculty position after a few years. These highly educated workers aren't highly paid.

First-year postdocs at UCSD start at an annual base salary of $43,692, below the average wage for workers in San Diego. Their base salaries increase each year, peaking in the mid-$50,000 range for postdocs with six or more years of experience.

Those wages are based on salary guidelines from the National Institutes of Health. The union has bargained to ensure that base pay for UC postdocs aligns with those guidelines.

At these rates, postdocs would be eligible for overtime pay during their first three years. Under the new overtime rules announced Tuesday, eligible workers would receive 1.5 times their normal hourly wage for every hour they work above 40 each week.

Wier said overtime work is common for postdocs. The union estimates the postdocs it represents work 53 hours per week, on average.

"Speaking for myself, I’m in the lab typically at least 10 hours every day during the week, and then often a few hours over the weekend as well,” he said.

"Often times, the experiments you’re doing dictate when you have to be there.”

Wier said the union isn’t pushing for a strict 40-hour work week. Instead, he says the union wants UC to raise base salaries for postdocs above the new $47,476 threshold, putting them beyond overtime eligibility.

National Institutes of Health director Francis Collins has pledged to raise salaries for postdocs funded through the agency's National Research Service Awards above the overtime threshold.

Like other universities, UC lobbied to exempt postdocs from the new rule, arguing the "uniqueness of the activities that postdoctoral scholars and specialists perform" made them different from other workers.

Administrators said the cost would be hard to absorb without an attendant increase in federal research funding.

"The required increase would place enormous strain on the university’s budget, likely forcing layoffs and causing delays and disruptions in ongoing research," wrote John Falle at the University of California's Office of Federal Governmental Relations.

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