UC must follow Department of Labor rule for postdoc staff

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Jenny Wu/Staff

Stagnant wages have dogged workers for decades. Data from the Census Bureau released this month show that most Americans make substantially less money in inflation-adjusted terms than they did 15 years ago. To the Obama administration’s credit, this is a problem it takes seriously and is looking to solve.

As a postdoctoral scholar at the University of California, I was happy to learn that thanks to a new rule proposed by the Department of Labor, myself and thousands of other UC postdocs would now be eligible for overtime pay. But I was taken aback when the university applied for an exemption so managers could continue to ask us to work more than 40 hours each week but not pay us for them.

Postdocs have already earned their doctorates and work long hours in labs across the university performing highly technical work. We are the backbone of the university’s research mission, and have helped secure hundreds of patents and many millions of dollars in grants for the university. Many of us are recent immigrants to the U.S., the best and the brightest in our fields from our home countries. And we are routinely asked and expected to put in far more than 40 hours per week.

Recognizing that postdocs and other workers are being exploited — in our case by a major recipient of federal tax dollars — the Obama administration proposed a fix. The new rule would raise the salary threshold for the “bona fide professional” overtime exemption, requiring the University of California and similar employers to pay employees overtime if they make fewer than $50,440 each year. As someone who routinely works overtime, this would make a huge difference for me and for my family.

UC postdocs are currently bargaining their next employment contract, but UC management is using the overtime rule to hold up negotiations, claiming that they cannot offer postdocs reimbursements for childcare expenses. A lack of childcare support has contributed to many women being forced out of their positions as postdocs, and has helped create a dramatic gender gap within the academy, especially in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, or STEM, fields. Although women receive more than half of the doctorates in this country, by many estimates, they represent only around 20 percent of full professors in the sciences and 5 percent of full professors in engineering.

Using this rule as an excuse to threaten our wages and benefits is the exact opposite of what the president is trying to achieve. Postdocs aren’t paid enough to afford childcare, and yet we’re asked, and in many situations tacitly required, to work more than 40 hours a week. President Obama and the labor department are moving this rule forward to help people just like us — people who work extremely hard and aren’t paid accordingly.

Institutions like the university should be fighting economic inequality, not perpetuating it. We’re asking UC managers to abandon their opposition to this common sense rule and join with President Obama by fairly compensating the postdocs who work so hard on their behalf.

Paying people fairly shouldn’t be a radical concept for the university to embrace — but its intransigence on this issue is just the latest in a series of labor-unfriendly moves that have sent three UC unions to strikes in just the past three years. Postdocs have empowered their bargaining team to call for a strike vote if necessary — and we ask the UC community, our political leaders and everyone who believes that workers should be paid for the time we work to stand with us.

Carly Ebben is a postdoctoral scholar at UC Berkeley and the UAW 5810 Berkeley unit chair. Contact the Opinion Desk at [email protected] and follow us on Twitter at @dailycalopinion.

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