Washington to Nation: Drop Dead on the Job

You may be thinking, with summer here, about tropical beaches with swaying palms where all cell phones are impounded. 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. Bring your own sleeping bag.

Despite having to cancel a vote to avoid an outright defeat, House Republicans have vowed to continue fighting for a bill, brazenly titled the "Family-Time Flexibility Act," that has about as much to do with families as a Vegas strip joint, yanking more parents for longer hours away from the home. It would allow employees asked to work overtime to opt for compensatory time off, instead of overtime pay. The choice of being paid in time or money would be at the employee's discretion.

But the bill leaves extremely vague how an employee can actually take that time, saying only that an employer should permit the employee to take the comp time "within a reasonable period" so long as it doesn't "unduly disrupt the operations of the employer." There are also no guarantees that the comp time would be truly "voluntary," since it's in the employer's interest to get free labor today that doesn't have to be paid for until much later. 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 -- without having to compensate him until the end of the year -- giving the company, in effect, an interest free loan.

Meanwhile, the Department of Labor has issued a proposal for new 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 percent of Americans log more than 40 hours a week, according to a new survey by the Internet travel company Expedia.com. Two other polls found that nearly 40 percent of Americans work more than 50 hours per week. We work 2.5 more weeks a year on the job than the Japanese and up to three months more than the Europeans. The average middle income family now 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 by work of every inch of our lives.

If the administration wants to make changes to 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 or not you get vacation is completely up to employers, most of whom would rather have a root canal than okay a vacation schedule. The lack of a paid-leave law is what leaves vacations with the distinct whiff of illegitimacy in this country, and it's why many feel guilty asking for their time or taking it.

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, with the explanation that they have too much work to take time off.

Since 1938, when the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) was passed, a 40-hour work week has been the standard. Employers were required to pay overtime for any hours worked over that amount. But there is an exception. Unlike hourly employees, salaried workers are exempt from the overtime pay provisions of the FLSA, and they have borne the brunt of the surge in working hours that began in the early '80s, 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 $8,050 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. Currently, to be considered a salaried employee and thus exempt from overtime, you have to manage other people or have a job that allows for significant autonomy in decisionmaking. The White House wants to modify the exempt employee category to include anyone who holds "a position of responsibility," which could include anyone who's breathing.

Corporate America wants these changes, because they have been taking it on the chin in court for misclassifying employees exempt from overtime pay requirements in an epidemic of phony salaries. The Wall St. Journal has estimated that such practices result in $19 billion of lost overtime wages a year. Class-action settlements have been won against Rite Aid Corp., U-Haul, Starbucks, and Bank of America, among others. Farmers Insurance 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, if a Farmers adjuster -- or anyone else -- simply holds "a position of responsibility," he or she would be exempt from overtime.

These moves are ironic, coming from an administration headed by a president who stops work at 6pm, 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 risk. Research has documented a higher incidence of coronary heart disease in men working more than 48 hours a week. Employees who work overtime report their jobs are highly stressful twice as often as those with regular schedules. And stress is not merely a nuisance: It's a crippler and 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 the Japanese, I'd hate to think what our karoshi numbers must be.

But we refuse to see the problem, blinded by an obsession that work style -- how long, how hard, how torturously -- is more important than what we accomplish. We somehow think that long hours will translate into higher productivity. But Europe had a higher productivity rate than the U.S. for 14 out of the 19 years between 1981 and 2000, according to the U.S. Federal Reserve Board. The evidence from Europe and enlightened companies in the U.S. shows that you can be productive and have a life.

Here's something that should make you a believer: Vacations can keep you among the living. An annual vacation can cut the risk of heart attacks in men by 30 percent and in women by 50 percent. It's the perfect antidote to the crushing stress of burnout, which vacations cure, say researchers, by regenerating spent emotional resources. But there's a caution: That regeneration process 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. The word vacation comes from the Latin root vacatio, which means "freedom." No citizen of the land of the free needs to feel guilty about exercising an annual bout of liberty. It's time to do as the president does when summer rolls around: Let freedom ring.

Joe Robinson is author of "Work to Live: The Guide to Getting a Life" and founder of the Work to Live Campaign.

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