Vox: Mandatory overtime is garbage

Your boss is the boss of your job, not of your life.

The Polk County Professional Firefighters union is in the throes of its final weeks of bargaining before its current contract expires at the end of the month. The more than 500-member organization in Florida is fighting for one overarching issue: better work hours, and the extent to which its firefighters are being stretched. And so multiple days a week, on its Facebook page, it posts how many of its members are working mandatory overtime. September 15: 24. September 12: 22. September 6: 25.

A lot of the people like the extra money that comes with overtime, explained Jon Hall, vice president of Polk County Professional Firefighters. “There’s people who want overtime anyway, so having openings within our system, it’s not a terrible thing, our guys like to have the opportunity. It just has gotten to a point that it’s so much that it’s unbearable,” he said. “It’s being able to work it versus being forced to work it.”

And the schedule is grueling. Generally, firefighters work a 24 hours on, 48 hours off system. Because of his department’s mandatory overtime rules — they’re expected to be on call for it two days a month and often wind up being required to do more — Hall said Polk’s firefighters are working an average 65-hour week. Time-and-a-half overtime pay kicks in when they reach 106 hours across two weeks. A 24-hour shift can easily turn into a 48-hour shift, and in some instances, it can become a 72-hour shift. The people required to stay are generally the ones who are already there, and they basically can’t say no. “It’s job abandonment, and you’re looking at termination,” Hall says.

Much of the discussion around the state of work recently has focused on remote workautomation, and what jobs might look like in the future. That often overlooks longstanding issues affecting millions of workers across the country that, while not the flashiest of issues, have a real impact on people’s lives.

Many American workers have very little control over their schedules. For some, that translates to too few hours, or a complete lack of control of when they’re expected to work week to week. For others, it means too many hours they can’t say no to. Often (but not always), mandatory overtime comes with a carrot of being paid time and a half for their labor. Sometimes, the carrot isn’t worth it, but workers have no choice. Their employer also has the stick and can fire them for refusing.

“For many, many workers, they don’t really have a right to refuse forced overtime. It’s just a growing problem,” said Paul Sonn, state policy program director at the National Employment Law Project (NELP). “It causes huge stress for families; it fuels greater on-the-job injuries.”

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) notes that long work hours and extended, irregular shifts increase the risks of accidents and injuries, contribute to poor health and fatigue, and increased stress and illness, among other effects. Mandatory overtime contributing to these issues isn’t good in any industry, and in some of the industries where it can be quite prevalent — in manufacturing, warehouses, health care, and, as Hall points out, firefighting — it can be especially disturbing.

“The danger of being a fatigued employee is prevalent in any industry that you’re working with other people or machinery,” Hall said. “We’re operating million-dollar fire trucks and driving them down the road, making life-and-death decisions.”

Overtime pay: Okay. Overtime pay when it means missing your kid’s birthday: Not so fun.

The long and short of it is that the law does not prevent employers from implementing mandatory overtime. The Fair Labor Standards Act, which establishes some basics around work standards in the United States such as a minimum wage and time-and-a-half overtime pay when people go above a 40-hour work week, doesn’t generally put any maximum on the amount of time people can work. (There are some caveats, like if the time creates a safety risk, or certain limitations on certain states.)

In many jobs, the basic gist is that if your boss says you have to stay, you have to unless you want to be fired. And overtime pay isn’t always guaranteed. Managers are often exempt from overtime pay, and Sonn notes that many businesses do a bit of tomfoolery to have people who perform very little managerial duties declared as such. Salaried employees over a certain level aren’t required extra pay, either — namely, those making over $35,000 a year. (The threshold was supposed to be higher under an Obama administration proposal, but as Vox explained in 2019, the Trump administration lowered it.)

Heidi Shierholz, president of the Economic Policy Institute, a left-leaning think tank, and former chief economist at the Department of Labor, noted that even when workers are getting time and a half, their base pay is so low, it can be worth it for their employers to force them into working extra instead of bringing on others to staff up. “Time and a half was really supposed to make it so employers had skin in the game and wouldn’t have absurdly regular very long hours for workers, but the fact that for so many workers pay is so low … if you’re an employer, you can game it out,” she said. If you’re paying someone $8 an hour, $12 an hour for some extra hours a week doesn’t hurt as much as, say, $15 that would suddenly become $22.50.

For workers, it can create a grueling situation. Take a scan of Reddit, and you can find one worker complaining “mandatory overtime is killing my desire to be a human being,” describing 11-hour shifts Monday to Friday and then another eight hours on Saturday. Another poster called the practice “borderline slavery,” explaining that because of attrition rates and the need to complete their call center work, they were staying hours after their shifts ended.

Some states have laws setting some limitations, such as requiring at least one day of rest in seven. Sonn noted there have also been shifts in regulations around the health care sector in both red and blue states, including TexasWest VirginiaMissouri, and New Hampshire creating protections for mandatory overtime for nurses. “Some states also have, for extra-long hours, even higher overtime, premium pay requirements,” Sonn said.

Still, many workers are stuck in situations they’d rather not be in; if they want to keep their jobs, they don’t have the option of not working extra hours when their boss says they have to. “We have employment law that is so profoundly anti-worker,” Shierholz said.

Read the full article at Vox.com

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