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Overtime and meaningful work

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Tuesday, Sep 25, 2007

The most recent BusinessWeek has an article about how many employees miss out on the overtime they may be owed under the Fair Labor Standards Act, which was enacted during the New Deal in order to promote higher employment. The idea was that by forcing firms to pay time-and-a-half overtime wages for any hours an employee works over 40, they would discourage long hours and hire more workers instead. But as the article points out, the math no longer works out—the benefits and training that any new employee requires makes overtime a better deal for management, particularly if they can get away with not paying it. How can they do that? By making wage workers mistakenly think that they are salaried employees who are “exempt” from overtime.


What makes that piece of subterfuge possible is the longstanding association of overtime with blue-collar work, itself a product of FLSA. The law established a distinction between work eligible for overtime pay (which was anything that could be done interchangeably basically by any trained worker) and work that wasn’t—namely any kind of work that required judgment, management ability, or administrative talent any professional or creative work, any work where the worker’s individual talent and personality factors in. So naturally, workers concluded if their work was meaningful or satisfying in any way, then it wasn’t eligible for overtime. Only those working on mindless tasks would expect overtime. Moreover, to be offered overtime was an implicit suggestion that your work should be meaningless to you, that only money should be able to induce you to want to be doing it anymore than you already unfortunately have to. Thus, at one of the places I’ve worked as a copy editor, the other copy editors were fighting to be regarded by the human resources department as exempt, as this would prove officially that their work required judgment and not just the mechanical application of standards passed down from managers. Whether they were right about this is an open question, but it seems to me that surrendering overtime to feel pride in your job is an absurd sacrifice. And no employees, salaried or not, should be resisting the opportunity for overtime, or the additional leverage over their employers that rights to overtime supplies. And the fact that meaningful work is in some ways its own reward doesn’t change that. Companies seem to get away with paying employees in meaningful work—in autonomy and in decision-making latitude. If money really were the ultimate key to autonomy, the ultimate invitation to decision making, that neutral storehouse of value that we decide to turn into whatever we want, perhaps we’d be more outraged about this. But the truth is that money can’t necessarily buy the satisfaction of having power and responsibility, the gratification of being taken seriously by people and entrusted to exercise one’s own judgment in the planning for achieving a common goal. This is underscored by a comment in a sidebar to the article from a professor of leisure studies (a oxymoronic discipline if there ever was one):


This brings to mind an oft-forgotten fact about overtime laws, which is that they were rooted in a time when many envisioned a steady reduction in the hours Americans worked. (John Maynard Keynes predicted a two-hour workweek by 1980.) That vision is long gone. In the intervening years, says Benjamin Kline, a professor of leisure studies at the University of Iowa, a huge change has taken place. The ideal of working fewer hours vanished long ago, partly as a result of economic imperative but also because of a cultural shift toward embracing work, particularly by professionals. “The image I use is that our faith is in our jobs” now, he says. The sense of purpose and identity that we used to find in religion, “we find more and more in our work.”


We look to work for meaning as much as for pay, so if we’re getting one, we perhaps don’t mind getting short shrift with the other. Thus it’s likely that the more an employer can create the illusion of meaning for its workers, the greater the share of profits it’ll be able to retain for itself. In order to fight this, we as a society would have to establish meaningful work as an automatic given rather than a glamorous substitute for other kinds of compensation. But unfortunately, there will always be that ever-enlargening proportion of non-meaningful work that needs to be done by someone.

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