Increasing postdoc pay. What’s next?

Earlier this month, the Department of Labor released a revision to the Fair Labor Standards Act rule concerning overtime pay. The revision raised the salary threshold by which workers are eligible for overtime pay to $47,476. The DOL made it clear that postdoctoral scholars would be eligible for overtime pay under this rule. Here is an excellent description of what this rule change means specifically for postdocs.

Rescuing Biomedical Research and postdoc organizations were supportive of the revision while university associations, which had lobbied for exempting postdocs from the rule, expressed concern. Importantly, Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, stated clearly that the agency will increase the salary of all postdocs above the overtime pay threshold.

So what political hurdles remain between now and December 1, when the revision is set to go into effect?

There are two reasons to think that the Obama administration is unlikely to budge from the December 1 deadline. First, President Obama views the rule revision as part of his presidential legacy, and legacies are often determined by the programs completed during a presidency, not just initiated. Second, over 4 million workers will receive the benefits of the rule revision for more than seven weeks before a new president is inaugurated on Jan. 20, 2017. Undoing the rule change would essentially take earnings away from these workers, and it would be very difficult for any president to do this. For these reasons, Obama is highly likely to insist on the hard December 1 deadline for implementation.

Congress has a couple of paths to blocking or amending the rule. Legislation has been introduced in the U.S. House and the Senate that would block implementation of the overtime rule revision. It is not clear if such a bill could pass both houses, but it would likely be vetoed by Obama if it did. Another possibility is that Congress could write exemptions to the overtime rule for specific groups into larger bills. The National Defense Authorization Act has such an exemption for some contractors working with the Department of Defense. However, the White House has issued a veto warning specifically because of this language. Some university groups have argued for exempting postdocs from the rule, and they may lobby legislators to introduce such language into larger bills.

The final effort of opponents to the rule may be to resort to the legal system. Filing an injunction blocking implementation of the rule revision may be the only way to affect implementation of the rule. However, the administration asserts it clearly has the authority to change the rule, and it is not clear how opponents to the overtime rule will argue otherwise.

Check back here for analysis as this story develops.