Research Assistants and Overtime Pay

Post-Baccalaureate Research Assistants (“RAs”) are notoriously underpaid and overworked in research programs all over the country. The budgetary constraints of grant-funded research programs often lead to understaffing, which in turn causes professors and other senior research staff to assign ever-increasing workloads to the RAs underneath them. This results in RAs having to work numerous overtime hours to satisfy their supervisors. For RAs who do not earn a salary of more than $684.00 per week, these overtime hours entitle them to compensation at a rate of 1.5 times their regular rate of pay.

The FLSA exempts from its overtime pay requirements “any employee employed in a bona fide  . . . administrative or professional capacity[.]” 29 U.S.C. § 213(a)(1). To fall within the either the administrative or professional exemption, an employee must be paid a salary of at least $684 per week. 29 C.F.R. § 541.300. For the administrative exemption to apply, the employee’s primary duties must constitute office or other non-manual work related to the general business operations of the employer, and the employee must exercise discretion and independent judgment. For the professional exemption to apply, the employee’s primary duty must require either “knowledge of an advanced type in a field of science or learning customarily acquired by a prolonged course of specialized instruction” or “invention, imagination, originality, or talent in a recognized field of artistic or creative endeavor.” 29 C.F.R. § 541.300(a)(2). The Massachusetts administrative and professional overtime exemption language is nearly identical to the FLSA’s, and it has largely been interpreted to mirror the FLSA exemptions’ reach.

The primary duties of most RAs generally fall under either administrative or professional work. Accordingly, whether an RA is entitled to overtime compensation turns on whether they are paid a salary of at least $684.00 per week ($35,568.00 per year). Thus, if you’re an RA making below that threshold, you are entitled to 1.5 times your regular rate of pay for all hours worked over forty in a workweek. Additionally, RAs who are paid on an hourly basis—even if they make over $684.00 per week—are also entitled to overtime compensation.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of RAs are in no position to assert their overtime rights as employees. The reality is that most are working as RAs for the sole purpose of bolstering their candidacy for hypercompetitive graduate school programs that require resoundingly positive letters of recommendation from each applicant’s supervisors—the same supervisors asking them to work long hours without overtime pay. This gives supervising professors and other senior research staff a huge amount of leverage over RAs, as a subpar recommendation will substantially impede graduate school admissions prospects and long-term career aspirations. Fortunately, there are two solutions to this imbalance of power.

First, Massachusetts law permits individuals with valid claims for unpaid overtime to bring claims at any time within three years of performing the unpaid overtime work. Thus, RAs have time to get their letters of recommendation, get into their graduate programs, and then bring a claim for their unpaid overtime wages without putting their career at risk.

Second, one RA can bring a class action lawsuit on behalf of all other similarly situated RAs. This means that if a university or program engages in a common practice of requiring RAs to work overtime, one RA’s bringing of the suit enables all other RAs who were subjected to the same unlawful practice—both current and former—to recover overtime wages without participating in the litigation, eliminating any risk of improper retaliation to unnamed class members. Additionally, the law incentivizes class actions by permitting cash awards to those who initiate the suit. Thus, an RA who initiates a class action and thereby incurs the risks associated with litigation may receive an additional incentive payment of several thousand dollars for their role in asserting and protecting the rights of others.

If you are an RA who has performed more than forty hours of work per week without receiving overtime pay within the last three years, you may have a valuable claim for unpaid wages. We evaluate cases confidentially and at no cost to you. You can reach us by phone at (617) 338 – 9400, by email at, or by filling out the form below.