Monday, March 25, 2013

Some Legal Differences Between Ac and Non-Ac Employment

This guest post is written by Paul R. Sullivan, Jr., Esq, an employee rights attorney in Pittsburgh, PA. With a keen knowledge of employment law and a personal investment in the experiences of post-acs (he is engaged to How To Leave Academia's own Currer Bell), Paul wrote this post to help make post-acs  aware of some of the legal differences between academic and non-academic employment. You may find him at or on Twitter at @sullivanlegal.

My fiancĂ©e received her Ph.D. in English last year. Since then, she’s become heavily involved in a growing community of grad students and professors who, voluntarily or otherwise, are leaving in droves the sinking ship that is academia. Because working in the academy is very different from most jobs, I decided to put together some helpful tips to help academics transition from the ivory tower to the downtown skyscraper.

The Ivory Tower

There are a number of concerns that go along with any career transition: what types of jobs are you qualified to do, what skills do you possess that easily cross-over into new fields, and how, for the love of god, do you find those jobs. Unfortunately, I don’t have those answers. If you find yourself asking these kinds of questions, you may benefit from the services of a career coach or counselor who works with people making career changes. I can, however, highlight some of the important legal issues you may encounter when leaving academia.

Downtown Office Building

What Is Employment At Will?

Most academics, whether a professor, grad student, or an adjunct instructor, work on a contract basis. A contract provides certain guarantees, such as a defined length of employment and a list of reasons for which you may be terminated. Most jobs in the private sector, however, are “at will” employment. This means, with few exceptions, you can be fired at any time, for any reason. However, even when your employment is at will, federal and state laws protect you from discrimination based on characteristics such as race, age, gender, religion, and disability.

While working at will may seem intimidating, it does provide some benefit to the employee. Because you can be terminated at any time, the flipside is also true. The ability to leave a job at any time can be very beneficial, especially when you are unhappy, or a new opportunity suddenly presents itself.

Pennsylvania, where I am located, is an employment at will state. However, the law regarding at will employment varies from state to state, so if you have specific questions about your local law you should contact an attorney in your jurisdiction.

What Is This Overtime Thing I’ve Heard So Much About?

I’ll refrain from a diatribe on the working conditions most academics face in this new world of temporary positions, adjunct assignments, and grad students working for peanuts. Indentured servitude is an accurate, if slightly hyperbolic description of what many people face in today’s academy. For those of you who have grown accustomed to this way of life, take hope—there are laws to insure you get paid for all your hard work.

The Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”), along with similar state laws, require employers to pay employees overtime wages for every hour worked in excess of forty hours per week. The amount of overtime is usually calculated at time-and-a-half, but can be more depending on your local law.

“But I’m a salaried employee, doesn’t that mean I can’t get overtime?” Absolutely not! There are certain exceptions to the FLSA, but being a salaried employee does not automatically make you exempt from receiving overtime wages.

So feel free to continue to put your nose to the grindstone, burn the midnight oil, etc., just make sure you’re adequately compensated for doing so.

Have Questions? Just Ask.

The most important take-away from this post is simply this: always ask questions. When you’ve spent a large part of your life working in one particular field, it’s easy to assume the rest of the world operates in the same way. Don’t let your assumptions prevent you from understanding and asserting your rights.

There are numerous resources on the web, and I’d be happy to point you in the right direction if you have a specific question. Don’t be afraid to pick up the phone and call an attorney in your area. Most employee rights attorneys will take the time to speak to you on the phone about your concerns. If you have more specific questions about leaving academia, feel free to leave a comment or send me a tweet @sullivanlegal.

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