UW Strike vs NIH Salary Caps — Postdocs deserve better pay — Let’s fix the system

Science ran a story on the current UW labor strike for postdoc and research staff salaries.

The story mentions that “The strike comes on the heels of a change in state law on 1 January, which mandated that overtime-exempt salaried employees at organizations with 51 or more employees be paid at least $65,484 annually—which is more than what many UW postdocs made previously.”

$65,484 annual.

If a postdoctoral trainee is supported on a NIH T or F Fellowship, they are bound by the federal salary cap for Postdoctoral Trainees.

So if we’re to bring on a new Postdoc who just finished a PhD program, the NIH would support $56,484 annual. These are 12 month appointments.

Maybe if a postdoc supported on a NIH training grant could claim overtime pay, they could be compensated more than the salary cap? — I’m not sure if it’s possible. But, that’s just perverse — to have to work overtime just to make ends meet?!

If we’d want to pay a postdoc $65,484/yr then I guess we wouldn’t be able to support them on a NIH Fellowship. So then what?

A. If NIH training grants are the only source of funding to support the postdoc, then we don’t hire a postdoc.

B. Look for other non-NIH funding sources to entirely support the postdoc.

C. Hire Research Staff instead of Postdoc. The Research Staff would probably have more years of experience than a Postdoc.

Let’s put ourselves in the shoes of the graduating PhD student, looking for a Postdoc position. Most universities across the US that are providing NIH-supported postdoc training programs will be offering pay at the NIH salary cap $56,484/annual. That might be fine if the university is located in a place with a relatively low cost of living. They’d probably think twice about accepting a postdoc position where the cost of living is high. But, they’d also be factoring into their decision other aspects of the postdoc opportunity, such as the potential for training and mentorship, and the potential for high research productivity at the particularly academic setting.

At the same time, if the university and faculty choose options A or C above, or offer fewer postdoc positions because of option B, then when the graduating PhD student looks for opportunities at the UW, there’ll likely be fewer and thus more competitive positions offered.

There are equity considerations. The federal salary caps are “equal” (i.e., all first year postdocs get $$56,484), but not “equitable” (i.e., the value of that compensation differs because the cost of living varies so much across academic centers in the US).

The strike calls out the equity problem, and the need for a solution. But, options A, B, or C can’t be the right solution. What is the right solution?