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Eight months on the job and the clock is ticking for Gwendolyn Carter, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences.

It's her first job since earning her doctorate. The unwritten rule for junior scientists like Carter seeking to prove themselves is to get at least one scientific paper published a year, she said. Her research involves studying the effects of radiation cancer treatment on human tissue, and her career goal, like that of many new postdoctoral fellows, is to ultimately land a job as a professor.

"You definitely want as many publications as possible," Carter said.

In her job, she estimated that at times she has worked up to 60 hours a week when she was facing a tight deadline.

The current salary threshold for "white collar" employees -- executive, administrative and professional workers -- to receive overtime pay is $23,660. Carter is paid more than that, so she gets no overtime pay for working more than 40 hours a week.

But a new rule from the U.S. Department of Labor is to take effect Dec. 1 that sets the threshold at $47,476, meaning that employees like Carter who now earns below that amount would either be paid overtime or have their salaries increased to more than $47,476.

A major player in research, the National Institutes of Health, announced support for the rule change, pledging to boost its stipends to postdoctoral fellows to above the overtime threshold.

Most colleges in Arkansas have yet to decide what they will do. To comply with the rule, they will need to either raise salaries of affected employees above the new threshold or begin keeping track of the number of hours researchers like Carter work. Public universities, unlike private schools, can also comply with the rule by providing time off in lieu of overtime pay. The human resources director at UAMS said employees would choose whether they prefer the extra pay or the time off.

University leaders say it remains unclear how researchers and other categories of workers in higher education -- or the finances of the institutions themselves -- will be affected by the rule change.

Hendrix College President Bill Tsutsui calls the rule change an "unfunded mandate." He said Hendrix, a liberal arts college in Conway, focuses less on research than do many other schools.

Though the Department of Labor has said that teachers, including coaches, will not be affected by the rule change, Tsutsui noted that at Hendrix, student service and admissions administrators, as well as some athletics department employees, will be among those affected.

He also warned that the increased costs could be passed on to students.

"Higher education faces an ever-increasing burden of regulation from Washington and the cost of implementing administrative directives such as this one stresses our budgets and contributes directly to the cost of earning a college degree," Tsutsui said in a statement.

In the business world, groups that include the Newspaper Association of America have opposed the rule, which applies to nearly all employers. They expect a negative impact that will ultimately hurt employees.

The Labor Department has said that the overtime exemption threshold for "white collar" workers is outdated.

In deciding where to set the new threshold, it referred to salary data on existing workers. The new threshold is set at the 40th percentile of earnings for full-time salaried workers in the South. That means that 40 percent of full-time salaried workers in the South earn at or below $913 a week, which is equivalent to $47,476 annually.

The rule change came about after President Barack Obama set out a memorandum in 2014 seeking to update the regulations. That was followed by a public comment period. The final rule change was announced this May.

Officials at most Arkansas colleges contacted by the Democrat-Gazette said they had not yet worked out the details of how they will handle the rule change or determined its full impact.

Hendrix College officials estimate that 14.5 percent of the school's workforce, or about 60 employees, would be affected by the change. A Hendrix College spokesman said a decision on whether to pay overtime or raise salaries will be made on a case-by-case basis, and the financial impact on the college is expected to be substantial.

At larger universities that do more research, a variety of positions and many research-oriented positions may be undergoing some changes.

The University of Arkansas at Fayetteville has said no decisions have been made about the "several hundred" potentially affected employees whose salaries fall under the threshold. The school employs about 3,200, not including faculty members.

"The university is still considering its options for how best to meet the new guidelines. Although specific approaches remain under discussion, the university will fully comply with all legal requirements," UA spokesman Mark Rushing said in a statement.

Asked about tuition increases because of the rule change, Rushing said: "We have not had any discussions on that approach."

The Arkansas State University System could have as many as 450 employees affected, according to Jeff Hankins, the vice president for strategic communication and economic development. No decisions have been made about how to comply with the rule.

Arkansas Tech University in Russellville hasn't made any decisions on the rule either, according to spokesman Samuel Strasner.

Some lawmakers have made efforts to block or amend the rule, which some critics say raises concerns about education costs.

"At a time when higher education costs are already skyrocketing, this will hurt not only the employers and employees, but will undoubtedly increase tuition costs for students. I am adamantly opposed to this rule and will continue to fight to stop its implementation," U.S. Rep. Steve Womack, R-Ark., said in a statement to the Democrat-Gazette.

However, Ross Eisenbrey, vice president of the Economic Policy Institute, a nonpartisan organization that supported the rule change, said the math doesn't add up in supporting such claims.

"It's not going to raise tuition," Eisenbrey said. Instead, colleges and universities "will reduce people's overtime," he said. "They'll spread people's work around."

Any payroll increase related to the new rule will be only a tiny percentage of a university's overall budget, Eisenbrey said.

In testimony before Congress, a University of Kansas official estimated the cost at $2.9 million to raise the salaries of 354 employees to the point where they would be exempt from the overtime pay threshold. According to a report from the Kansas Legislature's research department, the university spent $449 million on salaries in fiscal 2014.

Other congressional lawmakers from Arkansas, who responded to a request for comment, also criticized the rule. It's unclear what might result from their opposition.

The University of Kansas has said it will raise the salaries of 92 postdoctorate positions to the new threshold.

UAMS in Little Rock has yet to make a decision on the matter. The research-heavy institution employs 78 full-time postdoctoral fellows, who, on average earn $41,370, according to information provided by UAMS and a Democrat-Gazette analysis.

"To do this type of work, you have to have the heart for it," Carter said. "You have to want to do this. So it's not about the salary."

But others have expressed uneasiness with the postdoctoral system and called for changes that include better compensation for the researchers.

Paula Stephan, a professor of economics at Georgia State University, served on a committee that examined the postdoctoral training system for a report published by the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and Institute of Medicine.

The committee in 2014 found that postdoctoral salaries were too low and called for the postdoctoral fellows' pay to "appropriately reflect their value and contribution to research." The group recommended that the National Institutes of Health raise its National Research Service Award starting pay for postdoctoral fellows to $50,000 from its 2014 level of $42,000.

Stephan, author of How Economics Shapes Science, said postdoctoral fellows on average work 2,650 hours a year, roughly 53 hours a week.

But there is "practically an infinite supply" of applicants, Stephan said, adding that over half of postdoctoral fellows in the United States are working under temporary visas.

The committee also noted that while data are not definitive, more people with doctorates are seeking postdoctoral training, and they tend to stay in the positions for longer periods of time than previously.

Stephan has written that becoming a professor is getting harder.

"The odds of getting a tenure-track position have only gotten worse as funding for research remains flat, or in some instances, falls, and as many state universities find their public support continuing to erode," Stephan wrote in the academic journal BioScience.

The committee found that the funding for postdoctoral researchers comes more from nonfederal sources or as part of research grants.

With the new overtime rule, "I think lots of postdocs are going to benefit from this," Stephan said. "But there are going to be fewer positions. This mandate did not come with any increased funding."

Ahmed Hassan began working as an assistant professor about a year ago at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Earlier, he worked a year as a postdoctoral fellow researching high-frequency imaging technology at UA-Fayetteville.

He said he regularly worked more than 40 hours a week at UA.

"I think almost every week it was extra." He said he earned about $33,000 at UA, adding that "getting a Ph.D. did not give me the huge raise I was hoping for."

But the experience at UA, combined with another postdoctoral fellowship, was "very, very important" in helping him land his faculty job, he said.

Carter said that as part of her postdoctoral experience, she sometimes has to check in at the laboratory over the weekends to make sure her experiments are on track. If UAMS does require that her work hours be tracked, she said she wants her schedule to be flexible so that she can continue to effectively do her work.

As a postdoctoral fellow, "we're investing in our career," Carter said.

Metro on 07/03/2016

Print Headline: Higher-ed looking at new-rule upshot

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