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Just What the Worker Needs—Longer Days, No Overtime | EPI Viewpionts

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Just What the Worker Needs — Longer Days, No Overtime

Administration push for ‘flexibility’ will make many bosses smile

by Ross Eisenbrey

The Bush Administration is acting to make it easier for businesses to work employees longer hours without paying overtime compensation. A slick campaign will market these changes as employee-friendly efforts to increase “flexibility.” But rather than weakening the rules, we should be strengthening what we already have. The overtime rules under the Fair Labor Standards Act established the 40-hour workweek in 1938. By making every hour beyond 40 in a week 50% more expensive to the boss, the law discourages employers from assigning longer hours and rewards employees for the sacrifice of their personal or family time.

The labor act is the most important brake on longer work hours, other than unions. But the salaries at which employees become exempt from the law’s protections were set in 1975. And exemptions based on faulty premises, such as the quaint notion that an employee becomes an “executive” if he supervises two other employees, need to be revisited.

The law allows employees who make as little as $13,000 a year to be treated as “highly paid executives” and denied overtime protection. (Under California law, workers must make at least $26,000 a year and spend at least 50% of their time acting as a manager.) They can be required to work 50, 60, or 70 hours a week with no pay beyond their set salaries.

Businesses ranging from fast-food restaurants to insurance companies have exploited this unfair and ridiculous loophole in the law. Partly as a result of such
loopholes, the average American — and especially the average woman — is working longer hours while wages fail to keep pace.

The average workweek now exceeds 40 hours in most industries, and in 10 industries more than 20% of all workers consistently work overtime. Those who do work overtime average 51.8 hours a week.

This trend toward longer work hours runs contrary to the rest of the industrialized world. Americans have less leisure time, less paid vacation, and less sick leave and now work longer hours than even the Japanese, who for many years were the world’s most stressed workers.

The problem is especially severe because the total hours worked by the average U.S. household — not just individual workers — have increased dramatically, too.

Women are working many more weeks per year and hours per week, on average, than they did 30 or even 10 years ago. Middle-class married couples with children and a head of household between the ages of 25 and 54 now work an average of 98 weeks a year, compared with 78 weeks in 1969. Overtime for either spouse — but especially the mother — can have serious effects on a family.

We need to raise the salary level at which the regulations exclude workers from coverage, broaden the coverage, and protect as many workers as possible from being worked long hours without additional compensation.

Instead of protecting more workers and improving enforcement, however, the Bush Administration is seeking to remove as many employees as possible from coverage. By expanding the definitions of exempt “professional, administrative, and executive” employees, the president would cut the cost to employers of
longer work hours and seriously erode the 40-hour workweek.

Bills supported by President Bush would permit businesses to substitute comp time for overtime pay and calculate overtime on a two-week, 80-hour basis. This would reduce incomes, make employee schedules less predictable, and increase work hours by making overtime work cheaper.

When Bush announces he wants to give us the flexibility to work 60 hours a week with no more pay than when we worked 40, we should tell him we’re not interested.

Ross Eisenbrey is vice president and policy director of the Economic Policy Institute.


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