Three Gifts Workers Should Stop Giving Their Employers: Part 3 – The Gift of Unpaid Overtime

The labor laws permit employers to exempt a broad group of workers, generally white collar workers who earn twice the minimum wage, from overtime laws. “Exempt” workers are free to work more than 8 hours in a day or more than 40 hours in a week without obligating their employers to pay them overtime. That’s a gift. Stop giving it to your employer. Work hard during your work hours. Give it your all. If you feel like you are spending time unproductively, OK, work an extra half hour, or whatever time is necessary for you to be morally certain that you have provided your employer with 40 hours of honest work. And, from time to time, there is going to be some special, emergency project. OK, you’re a team player – pitch in. But, generally speaking, provide employers with what they are entitled to: 40 honest hours. Then, stop.

Labor laws require employers to pay overtime at the rate of 150% the normal wage rate for overtime work. Those laws exist to promote two important policies. First, if not checked, your employer will be happy to work you to death. Working over 40 hours per week has consistently and repeatedly been shown to be bad for physical health and mental well-being. It is contrary to the needs and best interests of your family. Giving the gift of unpaid overtime to your employer is weakening the strong families that are the foundation of our Nation’s middle class. Second, if not checked, employers would much rather hire one person and make that person do the work of two people than to hire two people. So, by legally prohibiting an employer from doing that, the laws promote fuller employment. Giving the gift of unpaid overtime to your employer is undermining the employment prospects of your neighbors. Both of these policies – protecting the health of people and their families, and promoting full employment, apply just as strongly to desk jobs as to heavy labor. If we want a stronger middle class, or if we want to stop the erosion of the middle class, refusing to give employers the gift of unpaid overtime is a step in that direction.

You may be apprehensive that, if you fail to work 50 hours when you are only being paid for 40, your employer will fire you. That is because you are still giving your employer the Gift of At Will Servitude. Refusal to work 50 hours when you are paid for 40 is not “good cause” to fire you.

Perhaps what I am suggesting is not workable for you. You know better than I. But, whatever else you do, you ought to at least keep track of your hours actually worked. Wage and Hour laws require the employer to track carefully the actual time worked of hourly employees. The law does not require employers to track the time of “exempt” workers, because the law doesn’t require employers to pay exempt workers overtime. So the legal scheme contributes to the “invisibility” of employer time theft from exempt employees. But, that doesn’t mean you can’t keep track of your own time so that at least you know how much of your time your employer is stealing from you and your family. And, at annual review time, perhaps your employer would benefit from being informed of precisely how much of your time they have stolen in the year under review.

Perhaps a legislative compromise is in order. In the first place, record keeping of time worked should be required and should be the employer’s responsibility, as it is for non-exempt employees. In that way, at least there will be transparency and acknowledgment that the employer is demanding more than 40 hours of work. For “exempt” employees, perhaps the obligation to pay overtime should not kick in until the employee’s time exceeds 10 overtime hours per month. Perhaps, for exempt employees, the overtime rate ought to be 100%, rather than 150%. Maybe it should be minimum wage; or a dime an hour. I’m open to discussion. But, stop giving your employer your time for free to an employer who won’t even acknowledge that they are stealing your time or keep track of how much they are stealing.

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