All Work and No Play

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.”

Corporate America wants these changes, because it has been taking it on the chin in court for wrongly labeling employees exempt from overtime-pay requirements. The Wall Street Journal has estimated that such practices result in $19 billion of lost overtime wages a year. Over the last two years, class-action settlements have been won against Rite Aid Corp., U-Haul International Inc., Starbucks Corp. and Bank of America Corp., among others. In 2001, Farmers Insurance Group lost a $90-million suit in a ruling that found that its adjusters, some of whom worked 12 hours a day, plus Saturday, for annual salaries of $30,000, exercised no independent judgment and therefore could not be considered exempt from overtime laws. Under the new rules, a Farmers adjuster, who clearly holds “a position of responsibility,” would be exempt from overtime.

These moves are ironic, coming from an administration headed by a president who stops work at 6 p.m., even during wartime, and who likes to take a month off each summer. President Bush should let his instincts, not his handlers and corporate cronies, rule on this one, because research shows that all the extra hours don’t produce much more than runaway medical bills and retention costs. One study found that someone who works seven 50-hour weeks in a row will get no more done than someone who works seven 40-hour weeks. Fatigued brains on an MRI scan look like those of people who are sound asleep.

Long hours do produce more stress, though, along with increased health risks. Research has documented a higher incidence of coronary heart disease in men working more than 48 hours a week. Employees who work overtime report that their jobs are highly stressful twice as often as do those with regular schedules. And stress is a killer. The Japanese have documented 10,000 cases a year of death by overwork, or karoshi, as they call it. Since we work, on average, 100 more hours a year than they do, imagine what our karoshi numbers must be.

Here’s something that should make you a believer: Vacations can keep you among the living. A study published in “Psychosomatic Medicine” found that men with more annual vacations were 19% less likely to die of heart attacks during a nine-year follow-up period to the study. And the Framingham Heart Study found that women who take infrequent vacations -- once every six years or less -- are eight times as likely to suffer heart attacks than those who take at least two vacations a year. But there’s a caution: Real emotional regeneration takes about two weeks, so long weekends aren’t real vacations.

Don’t let fear or guilt cut your vacation short. You are legally entitled to every day of whatever policy your company has on the books. It’s time to do as our president does when summer comes: Let freedom ring.