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All Work and No Play

Spending too much time on the job? Don't expect relief any time soon.

June 08, 2003|Joe Robinson | Joe Robinson is author of "Work to Live: The Guide to Getting a Life" and founder of the Work to Live Campaign:

You may be thinking, as summer approaches, about tropical beaches with swaying palms, beaches where cell phones aren't allowed. But if you work for a living, this could be the worst summer of your life.

American workers already put in more time than those in most other industrialized nations. Now, with little comment or scrutiny, the Labor Department and Congress have declared open season on the 40-hour week, pushing ahead on new workplace rules that could turn offices into all-night crash pads.

Despite having to cancel a vote last week to avoid an outright defeat, House Republicans have vowed to continue fighting for a bill, brazenly titled the "Family-Time Flexibility Act," that doesn't look half bad on the surface. It would allow employees asked to work overtime to opt for compensatory time off (figured at 1 1/2 hours per hour of overtime worked) instead of overtime pay. The choice of being paid in time or money would be solely at the employee's discretion. So far, so good.

But the bill leaves vague how an employee can take that time, saying only that an employer should permit the employee to take comp days "within a reasonable period" so long as it doesn't "unduly disrupt the operations of the employer." The bill requires employers to pay for unused comp time within 30 days of the end of the calendar year, but that would theoretically allow employers to wait up to 13 months before paying someone the overtime he or she worked for -- giving the company, in effect, an interest-free loan.

Meanwhile, the Department of Labor has issued a proposal for wage-and-hour regulations that would radically alter the definition of the term "salaried employee," a move likely to dramatically increase the ranks of workers who are not paid for overtime. The proposals can't go into effect until a 90-day public comment period passes -- which will be June 30 -- but it's quite possible they will then become law by the end of the year, without even a vote in Congress.

Americans are already working more hours than at any time since the 1920s. Some 63% of Americans log more than 40 hours a week, according to a new survey by the Internet travel company Expedia. A National Sleep Foundation poll found that nearly 40% of Americans work more than 50 hours per week. We work 2.5 more weeks a year than the Japanese and up to three months more than the Europeans. The average middle- income family puts in four months more on the job in total hours each year than in 1979. For my money, the biggest threat to family values is the hostile takeover of our lives by work.

If the Bush administration wants to change labor law, how about starting with vacation? We're the only country in the industrialized world without a minimum paid-leave law. The Europeans have laws requiring four or five weeks of paid leave each year. The Japanese are guaranteed two weeks. Even the Chinese have a three-week vacation policy. Here, whether you get vacation is completely up to your employer. In Washington state, the 2002 State Population Survey found that 17% of workers there got no paid leave -- even for illness.

American workers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, get an average of 8.1 days of vacation after one year on the job, and just 10.2 days after three years. Days actually taken may be significantly fewer. Expedia's polling found that Americans hand back $21 billion in unused vacation time to their employers each year.

Since 1938, when the Fair Labor Standards Act was passed, a 40-hour workweek has been the standard. Employers were required to pay overtime for any hours worked over that number. But there is an exception. Unlike hourly employees, salaried workers are exempt from the overtime pay provisions of the labor act, and they've borne the brunt of the surge in working hours that began in the early 1980s, which has been fueled mostly by downsizing.

Currently, you have to meet a number of requirements to be classified as a salaried employee, including a salary test. You can't be considered exempt from overtime if you make less than $8,060 per year. Proposed rule changes at the Department of Labor raise that amount to $22,100, which is an improvement. But other proposed changes are alarming. To be considered salaried, and thus exempt from overtime, you have to manage other people or have a job that allows for significant autonomy in decision-making. The White House wants to modify the exempt category to include anyone who simply holds "a position of responsibility."

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