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Building the Dream on Overtime

Even with a robust economy, working extra hours each week is the only way many families can survive financially.


Carmela and Alberto Gonzalez have created their version of the American dream: their own home, a daughter in college with her eye on a teaching career and another in parochial school. But theirs is a time-and-a-half dream, funded by the overtime both work whenever they can.

"If I didn't have overtime, it would be terrible," said Carmela, a 37-year-old mother of three. "My daughter's at university. I pay a baby-sitter, and I pay for school for my other daughter."

Despite the booming economy, many families are using overtime to finance middle-class lives. Although pilots, nurses, telephone operators and paramedics are protesting forced overtime, other workers are taking second jobs or volunteering--even competing--for every hour of work they can get.

The preservation of overtime pay was a key issue that propelled Los Angeles area bus and rail operators to walk off their jobs in a strike than ran from Sept. 16 through Oct. 17.

"To maintain a standard of living, people are working longer hours. Most people don't like it but feel forced to do it," said Art Pulaski, executive secretary-treasurer for the California Labor Federation.

Carmela Gonzalez knows long days--and nights.

She gets home from work around noon, giving her a couple hours to clean the house and get dinner ready before she drives to one school to fetch her 6-year-old son and another for her 12-year-old daughter. After dinner, she does the dishes and helps her kids with homework.

Sleep? Gonzalez rolls her eyes.

She tries to get to bed by 7. Or 8. Either way, her alarm goes off at 1, just in time to make her 2 a.m. shift at a food processing plant in Vernon, where she earns $9 an hour. Her shift is supposed to end at 10:30 a.m., but if she's lucky there will be enough work for her to get an hour or two of overtime.

Her husband, a delivery truck driver, also puts in as many hours behind the wheel as he can, typically working 10 to 12 hours of overtime each week.

"It's a rat race. That's what we've created for ourselves, and we're grappling with the consequences," said Barry Broad, a Sacramento-based lobbyist for the Amalgamated Transit Union.

Broad also serves on the state Industrial Welfare Commission, which implemented AB 60, the law that went into effect Jan. 1 reinstating time-and-a-half pay for work after eight hours a day for most private, nonunion, hourly workers in California.

"The reason 130 years ago that labor started the eight-hours-a-day movement was not to increase people's income through overtime but to limit their day, to give them a life. And it's something we still need to aim for," Broad said. "People shouldn't need to work all the time in order to live."

In California, 25% of workers reported putting in more than 40 hours a week in 1997, said Enrico Marcelli, an assistant professor of economics at the University of Massachusetts-Boston and a visiting scholar at UCLA.

Nationwide, 19.5% of full-time hourly employees worked more than 40 hours a week in 1999, said a new report by the Employment Policy Foundation, a Washington-based research group funded by business. The average was 11 hours of overtime a week, up more than an hour since 1979.

Of more than 7 million workers holding down two or more jobs in 1997, 41% said they needed the money to meet regular household expenses or pay off debts, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported.

Over the last decade, increases in hours worked have far overshadowed increases in wages in contributing to family income gains, said a report released in September by the Economic Policy Institute, a labor-backed research organization based in Washington.

The typical middle-income, married-couple family worked 3,600 hours in 1998, up 182 hours from 1989, the EPI said. That additional work is responsible for 73% of the typical family's income gains over the decade, said EPI senior economist Edith Rasell.

"What we've seen in the U.S. as a whole is incomes for many people have been stagnant or falling, so many people are making up for that by working longer hours," Rasell said.

During the same period, the purchasing power of the average California family of four declined by $1,069, said a report released in September by the California Budget Project, a research group based in Sacramento.

Despite low unemployment rates and tight labor markets, average incomes and hourly wages, adjusted for inflation, were lower in 1998 than a decade ago, the report said. And the poverty rate and the share of the work force employed at poverty-level wages are higher.

A family of four with both parents working full-time needs at least $44,700 a year to sustain what California Budget Project Executive Director Jean Ross called a "bare bones" existence in the Los Angeles area, and that assumes they can find a two-bedroom apartment for $749 a month.

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