Wednesday, 8 July 2015

This isn't about you

I've been trying of late not to blog based on twitter interactions so much, because I think I talk enough on twitter that I don't need to repeat myself on here. But the past few days discussion about the overtime directive has me feeling the need to expand on my thoughts slightly.
To recap, the Obama administration is directing the department of labor to raise the threshold for overtime exemption from $23,660 dollars a year to $50,000 dollars a year, on the basis that that threshold no longer reflects the intent of the law as was written.
Justin Kiggins over at the Spectroscope blogged about whether this would apply to postdocs, who are currently paid $42,000 and $56,000 on the NRSA pay scale set by NIH (I believe that the level are slightly less for NSF postdocs, but I have been unable to find clear figures). Thus, postdocs with less than 4 years postdoctoral experience may be concerned by this change (after 4 years NRSA pay scale reaches the new threshold). This was a reasonable point to make. And then all hell broke loose on twitter.
Initially, most postdocs were incredulous that such a thing as "overtime" could even apply to them. Even today, scientists on twitter are arguing that scientists are overtime exempt, pointing to the very directive that is subject to change. Others argued that fellows are already exempt from many of these labor laws. Which is true, but many postdocs are not fellows in a employment sense: if you are paid our of a PI grant such as a R01 and receive a W-2 with witholdings, you are, to all intents and purposes, an employee of the institutions at which you work (this is also why you are illegible for employee benefits, 403bs and such). Most postdocs were convinced that universities and NIH would do everything they could to find ways around this. Which is probably true, that is how labor reform goes. More disturbing to me was how many were convinced that it shouldn't apply to them. Arguments raged that our work could not be quantified (yes it can), that what we did didn't count as work anyway (yes it does), that we didin't fill time cards (indeed, because the current law does not require it). Anything but the status quo seemed unimaginable, and the very idea that may be a limitation of working hours inconceivable.
The response to the possibility that labor laws might apply here
And then the PIs got involved, and it turned into a standard discussion of what postdocs are owed, what they worth, how we are entitled. We were called "giddy", despite having greeted this entire discussion with (in my view) excessive skepticism. We were warned darkly about what this might do to our employment prospects (by the very people who ordinarily would say that lowering the number of postdocs would be a good thing).
And here is where I lost it.
Because this reform is not about postdocs. As Kiggins pointed out, postdocs represent less than 1% of the people who may be affected. This reform is about bar, restaurant and store managers on $24,000 how work 60 hr weeks. This reform is about how nearly 9/10th of US earners are exempted under current legislation (back of an envelope calculations from here). This is about how, as the reaction of US postdoc shows, no one in this country actually believes in labor law anymore. No one believes that they can be protected from overwork, that pay should be proportional to hours worked as well as talent. No one even believes in the benefits their employer gives them. I have yet to meet a single person at my workplace who takes our (generous) 20 day vacation allowance. And trust me, it's not just because they love their work. I've spent enough time with Americans to know how they are socialized to view vacation as a professional liability.
And yes, laws like this have complex and difficult ramifications for small and medium enterprises. If PIs think finding an extra 6 grand for a postdoc will be hard, think of the restaurant manager trying to calculate whether or not to hire a second manager at 24K, pay the existing manager overtime, or bump her salary to the new threshold.
But when we argue about whether we should be exempt, we are not just doing ourselves a disfavour. We're making an argument that will be used by every boss in every sector against people paid far less and with worse career prospects. 
So, PIs, postdocs: this rule is not about you. It is about fair labor compensation for all workers in the US, of which you happen to be a part. A little less onanistic navel gazing would suit you well at this point.
In 2000, France passed a law mandating a 35h working week for all salaried workers, with further limits on annual amounts of overtime worked. It was cumbersome and stupid, difficult to implement and the subject of much ridicule. But I would much rather come from that tradition then one that is so willing to believe its only right is to work more for less. 
(As an aside, the current salary cap is low enough that most lab techs are also overtime exempt. Have you asked your tech how many hours she works lately?)

No comments:

Post a Comment