by The Inmate
I am quite sure that amidst the hustle and bustle of American life, there is a great deal of wistfulness, of the divine desire to lie on a plot of grass under tall beautiful trees of an idle afternoon and just do nothing.
—Lin Yutang, The Importance of Living
Recently the Los Angeles Times reported that managers are suing to be paid overtime. Much of this legal battle involves the distinctions between exempt(management) and nonexempt(workers) employees. California law requires that exempt employees be paid at least twice the minimum wage, but they are not eligible for overtime pay. The managers are asserting that they were essentially or at least mostly doing the kind of work that nonexempt employees were doing and not getting paid overtime for it. Some managers complained that some of the people they managed actually made more money than they did. Oh, the horror, the horror!
Lisa Girion of the Times explained that exempt employment must be “work that is intellectual, managerial or creative and that requires the use of discretion and independent judgment.” The distinction between what is essentially blue-collar(nonexempt) and white-collar(exempt) work is interesting. As a blue-collar worker I am ashamed of myself for using my intellect, my creativity, my discretion and independent judgment to perform my job. I assumed I was supposed to, but now that I know the law allows me to act only when a manager directs me, I plan to voluntarily bring myself into compliance with what is expected of me. Beginning tomorrow, I shall suspend those qualities until I am reclassified as an exempt employee.
Many of the managers who are filing lawsuits complained of long hours(50 plus hours a week) resulting in time spent away from their families. Others mentioned physical problems caused by the long hours. They are not, however, suing the corporations for the damage done to their families or their bodies. No, what they want is to be paid overtime because they were not performing a sufficient amount of managerial duties to be considered exempt. It is to be presumed, then, that if they had worked even more hours in legitimate managerial duties everything would be just fine. The issue seems to be not about children or family or health, but money which is why some of the employees continued to work the long hours regardless of their families or their health and did not sooner look for different work or make some demands on their employers.
These lawsuits overlook what is most important. Obviously workers should be paid overtime. Managers who work over forty hours a week should also be paid overtime. But more important than all this is that no one should have to work more than forty hours a week if they do not want to. Mandatory overtime should be against the law. Managers with exempt status are constantly taken advantage of by being asked to stay late and work weekends. Until the law protects them(a doubtful prospect–the government wants those taxes), they need to negotiate contracts that guarantee a 40 hour week and no mandatory overtime. The arguments by the employers against the lawsuits being filed have to do with, what else, money. Companies, they say, will go out of business if they have to pay this kind of overtime or the consumer will have to pay more for their product. Well, hot damn summer in the city! What a travesty.
This is indicative of the continued tension between corporate culture and a meaningful life. In what ways would the mental states of workers change if they consistently worked 40 hours a week? What benefits would children gain from the 40 hour week? What benefits might an invalid retired parent gain? It is terrible that we have become a two-income, 80-plus-hour-a-week nation. It is terrible that for some families this is their only option. It is more terrible that this lifestyle is not only accepted, but also lauded and praised. I do not understand the motivation of those who do not need a double income, but, nonetheless, still keep it while their children get first hand knowledge of The Lord of the Flies. Daycare is not better nor will it ever be better than an interested parent. That interested parent can be a man or woman, but it should be the child’s parent and not the parent of someone else. The real travesty is that we measure success in the Western world and more and more in the Eastern, almost solely upon the economy. What about intellectual, spiritual, family, relationship and religious considerations? I do not think there would be much problem in gaining a consensus that these are the more necessary for a significant life. Why, then, does business culture largely ignore them?
There is not an easy answer to this question or an easy solution to the woes of corporate culture. The elimination of mandatory overtime would solve only part of the problem. The culture of work is so ingrained in the American and European psyche that more leisure time in many cases would only be filled up with more work, more business, more busyness. “I have often said,” wrote Pascal, “that the sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room.” Before he can learn to do that, however, he must have the time and the will to do so.
- Yutang, Lin, The Importance of Living, Quill, William Morrow, New York, 1998(first published in 1937), pg. 2.
- Girion, Lisa, “Infuriated Managers Suing for Overtime–and Winning,” The Los Angeles Times, Friday, June 8, 2001, pp. A1, A26.
- Pascal, Blaise, Penseés, translated by A.J. Krailsheimer, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England, 1985, pg. 67.