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In order to help in future salary negociation, I wanted to know whether it is condiered normal in North America to be quoted a gross salary that does not take into account employer contributions to things such as a a mandatory pension plan.

Specific example situation

This question is based on a situation I am experiencing right now, so I will use this to illustrate more specifically what I mean. I have just accepted a postdoc position (in a Canadian university, in case this is relevant), for which my advisor offered a salary of $40,000.

He wanted me to start working very quickly and I was available, so I started working without having signed my contract. Two weeks after, he explained that the work contrat was ready, and that the amount I would see in it (ca. $36,000) was the $40,000 he had quoted minus the contributions towards the pension plan and group insurance.

It was not obvious to me whether the deducted contributions were my contributions, i.e. $36,000 minus withheld tax would be my net income, or whether he had deducted the employer contributions and my net income would therefore be $36,000 minus my own contributions minus withheld tax.

I sent an email asking just that, and my advisor came to my office, slightly on the defensive I thought, to explain that the grant he had for my salary covered only $40,000 per year in total but that he had decided he would pay for the employer deductions with money from a different grant, and therefore that a new contract would be drafted.

And here I am, wondering whether there was an honest mistake or misunderstanding, whether I'm being a diva and my advisor just doesn't want to deal with it, or whether someone has tried to screw me.

Your answers will help me address this concern but mostly, as I wrote, will be helpful to me and I suspect to others in knowing exactly how to negociate their salary in the future.

Disclaimer

And before anyone tells me, I do realise that I am getting an adequate salary in the current conditions and that I should consider myself lucky to have a pension plan and group insurance.

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  • Your advisor is the wrong person to talk to about this... talk to HR/payroll. – jakebeal Mar 10 '15 at 18:02
  • I personally don't think CA$36000 (€26.5k, US$28.4k) before taxes is an adequate salary for a trained scientist with a PhD who can churn out papers, given access to a desk and a computer, with considerably less supervision than a PhD student. But who listens to me? ;-) – gerrit Mar 10 '15 at 18:25
  • @jakebeal, I suppose it would have been easier talking to HR, but my advisor seemed insistent on handling the whole process, including answering the emails I sent to both him and HR. I'm not sure whether that's usual in this university, or whether it's just his personality, or maybe it's just because he's the provost... – scozy Mar 10 '15 at 18:37
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    @gerrit, I meant "adequate" in the sense of "within the range of normal salaries". Given how many hours a postdoc works, that may just end up slightly below the minimum wage... I suppose that's the price you pay in order to have a chance of maybe someday lending a faculty job and multiplying your salary by a factor of three overnight. :-P – scozy Mar 10 '15 at 18:40
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    Some quick Googling reveals that this seems to be a normal postdoc salary in Canada. But just because it's normal doesn't mean that it isn't insultingly low. Unfortunately, it tends to be a "like it or lump it" scenario :( – Moriarty Mar 10 '15 at 21:31
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To deduct employer contributions from the salary as well as employee contributions would be highly unusual, I believe. (If it were the norm, then there would be no need for a terminological distinction between employer and employee contributions.)

EDIT: Here is my guess about what happened (purely speculation). Perhaps there are contributions that are classified as "employer contributions" for tax purposes, and the university requires these contributions to be made for postdocs as well as regular employees but only makes the contributions for regular employees, so for postdocs the money has to come out of a grant instead. This situation has the potential to be confusing, so perhaps your advisor simply forgot about this until you reminded him, at which point he realized that he made a mistake.

In any case, the question you asked him in your e-mail was completely reasonable.

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In general, unless otherwise stated, you are normally quoted gross salaries, which are of course before any automatic deductions have been made. If you were somewhere like Germany, you could consult tables which tell you how much your post-tax salary would be, but in the US, there are too many variables (what health plan is selected, how many exemptions you choose to declare, and how much you choose to put into various retirement plans) for either faculty or even HR staff to be able to give you accurate information on the net salary.

However, the employers' contributions are not supposed to be included in the gross salary, since that's not what you'd be expected to pay taxes on.

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    It seems to me that the OP is saying that employer contributions have been deducted from the salary as well as employee contributions. This is highly unusual, I believe. If it were the norm, then there would be no need for a terminological distinction between employer and employee contributions. – Trevor Wilson Mar 10 '15 at 18:33
  • @TrevorWilson that is sufficiently succinct and on-point that it ought to be posted as an answer. – mweiss Mar 10 '15 at 18:34
  • @mweiss Ok, I will do that – Trevor Wilson Mar 10 '15 at 18:35

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