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Overtime Sensitive

My first real job in high school was cleaning stalls at a horse farm in Ridgefield, Conn. It was the spring of 1974, and the minimum wage had just gone from $1.60 an hour to $2.

The owner of the stable was an irascible Polish man said to have served in the Polish Cavalry at the outset of World War II before fleeing the Nazis for the United States. He counted out my off-the-books earnings every Saturday afternoon from a handful of bills he pulled out of his pocket, and he never expected me to work past my required five hours.

I was a horse-crazy teenager, but this job would have exhausted a longshoreman. I pushed wheelbarrows of manure out of the sweltering barn, unloaded wood shavings from the storage loft, and led the 1,000-pound occupants of the stable in and out of their stalls as I shoveled my way down both sides of the aisle. The National Velvet routine got old and hot by the end of the summer, so I started searching for a different job.

The search ended in the Friendly Ice Cream shop in Ridgefield, where the pay was a little better and the temperature considerably cooler. In making the switch, however, I entered the mainstream American workforce, which meant I was working for a large corporation. And at my Friendly, under the manager there at the time, that translated into mandatory free overtime.

In the annals of workforce abuses, my long-ago experience with Friendly is almost comical to recount. I wasn’t a divorced young mother trying to support my family by standing at a cash register in Wal-Mart; I was a high school kid saving for college and living at home with my parents, who more than provided for my everyday needs. But the fact that Friendly turned out to be just the first in a long line of jobs that expected free overtime from me makes it worth noting. If this is what you learn to expect starting out, you eventually just shrug and figure there’s nothing you can do to change the situation.

And my experience is not unique. Free overtime has become such an accepted part of the American workweek that it’s almost surprising that a couple of Wal-Mart workers finally got angry enough to recently file a class-action lawsuit against America’s most successful retailer, over accusations that the company routinely required them to work mandatory free overtime.

At Friendly, the clock stopped at 12:45 AM every Friday and Saturday night, no matter how long it took us to clean up after the late rush from the high school basketball-game crowd. I’m sure that the folks at Friendly’s corporate offices didn’t officially condone free overtime. But this was also the company that taught us to scoop an ice cream cone in such an artfully crafted way that most customers didn’t realize the interior was almost hollow, so it’s not surprising that my manager sought to operate “efficiently.” The waitresses and busboys each donated about a half-hour of free overtime on weekend night shifts.

That might not sound like much, until you calculate it in 1974 terms. A half-hour of free overtime multiplied over a year, say, 75 Friday- and Saturday-night shifts, would have been worth $112.50. I was saving for college, at a time when $100 bought a lot more than it does now. That free overtime would have bought an entire year’s worth of textbooks when I started college in 1975, and it also would have paid my weekly spending money for at least a half a semester. But I never saw a dime of it.

Free overtime followed me into my career as a newspaper reporter, where my colleagues and I donated staggering numbers of unpaid hours to the corporations and family dynasties that owned the four newspapers at which I worked. The Newspaper Guild, the union representing reporters, tends not to be as aggressive as it could be on this issue. That’s an expensive battle to pursue, and the Guild isn’t in every newspaper. And newsroom managers know that reporters will continue to work free overtime, because few reporters will get up in the middle of an unfinished story and walk out at the end of a shift.

The issue of salaried, managerial pay versus hourly, non-exempt pay figured strongly into the boom of the 1990s, notes Jeffrey Wenger, an economist with the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C. The definitions of who’s a salaried manager and who’s an hourly “worker,” entitled to overtime pay, were set in the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1935, and have remained remarkably stable—even as the types of jobs performed in America have drastically changed.

Teachers, lawyers, accountants and other “professionals” are generally salaried. Manufacturing and service jobs are generally “hourly.” But as manufacturing jobs have given way to high-tech positions, the lines between managerial and hourly workers have blurred, Wenger notes. The person supervising the computer support systems at the help desk of a large accounting firm is probably salaried, but is probably also working absurdly long hours and large amounts of unpaid overtime without the respect or responsibilities of a true manager.

“This is, I think, part of the big problem of the overtime debate: the way the current law is structured,” Wenger said. “Once you are a salaried employee, you can work 12 hours a day with no extra compensation. If you push more people into salaried ranks, then all these extra hours are free, because they don’t fall into overtime ranks.”

That kind of worker abuse is more insidious than the blatant “you’re not leaving yet” exploitation of unpaid overtime involved in the accusations against Wal-Mart, Wenger added.

The abuse of the low-level managers who helped fuel the largest sustained economic boom in the history of the world came in a prettier package, the jobs had impressive titles and the people performing them could make or break a day at a large company. If the computers and technical support systems didn’t work, nothing else did, either.

But in the end, I suspect a lot of people who never punched in an eight-hour shift at a cash register are silently wishing the Wal-Mart plaintiffs good luck, because that could be any of us.

—Darryl McGrath

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