If Overtime Isn’t Good for Your Corporate Culture, Maybe You Should Change the Culture

New York Times journalist Noam Scheiber wrote a piece over the weekend about the increasing overtime threshold. Did he profile one of the many fast food managers who will make more money when the new overtime threshold takes hold? Did he chat with a low-wage worker from New Hampshire who suddenly won’t have to work 13 additional hours a week for absolutely no extra money?

Well, no. Instead, he talked with “bosses at publishing houses, glossy magazines, consulting firms, advocacy groups, movie production companies and talent agencies.” For example:

 “You want to bump into the boss at 8 o’clock at night,” said Dan Reynolds, chief executive of Workman Publishing, the publisher of “What to Expect When You’re Expecting” and many of Sandra Boynton’s children’s books.

“I’m interested in how this will affect that,” Mr. Reynolds said. “It’s more of a cultural thing than anything else.”

Uh huh. Okay. And what does this “cultural thing” entail, exactly?

 Workman’s general manager, Jill Salayi, suggested that because the company could not afford to pay overtime to all newly eligible staff members or raise their salaries over the new threshold, it would have to cut back their hours in many cases.

“Less will be asked of them,” she argued, “which means they will not receive sufficient career development or see timely advancement and/or promotions.”

I don’t know about you, but I’ve heard these same kind of arguments from terrible bosses at terrible jobs when they explained why they couldn’t pay any more even though they were asking me to do more work. They told me that without hard work—by which they meant unpaid work, above and beyond the 40-hours-per-week in the job description—I would never get ahead. This is a classic example of the kind of intimidation tactic that people in power use to keep the masses in line.

By calling it a “cultural thing,” they’re trying to render these long hours without compensation as something outside a transactional basis. Long hours are a value, a moral right that the truly worthy workers have supposedly exerted for years in order to get ahead. Which, you know, might be true to some extent—it’s possible that Salayi and Reynolds worked long hours to get where they are. But if that’s true, it’s also likely true that dozens—maybe hundreds—of other employees have worked long hours without the compensation they were due or the “career development” that Salayi suggests they’ll receive.  “We’ve always done it this way” is one of the worst arguments a person can make; that argument has been used, traditionally, by opponents of women’s suffrage, child labor laws, and many more of America’s greatest shames.

And further, the overtime threshold doesn’t come with any restrictions on “career development”—it’s still perfectly legal to offer promotions to employees who prove themselves to be capable. It just won’t be legal to ask those employees to work long hours without compensation anymore; employers will have to find a newer, less terrible way to test employee loyalty.

And let’s take a look at the people who Scheiber chose to interview for this piece: one of the largest publishers in the United States; “executive director of the Writers Guild of America, East;” high-profile literary agents; “the team that produced ads for both of Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns;” and a television producer. These employers all argue that working their employees to the bone is part of the culture, yet every one of these organizations operates in fields that can afford to pay entry-level employees enough to pass the overtime threshold. Worse, they’re arguing for paying their employees below the overtime threshold in New York City, one of the most expensive cities in the world, where the Economic Policy Institute’s budget calculator determined that in order to live comfortably the annual income of a household of four would have to fall just shy of $170,000.

Look: I’m not saying that these organizations will not have to make some changes. They almost certainly will. They might have to consolidate two low-paying assistant jobs into one well-compensated assistant title that pays higher than the current threshold. Or if they’re not willing to change their culture, management might not be able to rely on staff working with them until 8 pm every night, which means they might have to get their own coffee or print their own documents when they’re working late. The culture, I guess, will have to change.

One of the more surprising aspects of the article is how flagrantly the employers talk about ignoring the new law.

Andrew Wylie, who runs the [Wylie literary] agency, said he would consider paying time and a half if he asked junior staff members to work overtime, but not if they worked long hours of their own volition. “What am I supposed to do, sit at the door with a stopwatch?” he said. “I’m not going to do that.”

Well, uh, it’s your responsibility as an employer to keep track of how many hours your employees work for you. If you don’t do that, you could be setting yourself up for a nasty lawsuit later on, which would almost certainly be more expensive than just doing the right thing and paying your employees what they’re worth.

The weirdest thing about all this is that many of these employees likely should have been receiving overtime compensation already. The current threshold—$23,660—is just one of the rules by which it’s decided whether employees earn overtime or not. If employees are not managerial—if their jobs don’t fall along the lines of “executive,” “professional,” or “administrative”—they’re likely eligible for overtime already. (Call your lawyers, administrative assistants of the world!) If anything, the new threshold makes classifying which employees are eligible for overtime even easier and more streamlined, so confusion like this won’t happen in the future.

Motivations are important. Of course these employers are arguing against paying their staff less; people in power always want to pay less. But if any Americans can afford to pay their employees what they’re deserved, it’s the employers profiled in Schieber’s piece. That they’re using the “culture” defense to justify paying their employees less than what they’re owed is one of the clearest signs that America’s overtime rules are in serious need of an overhaul. Good thing a change to this culture is finally on the way.

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Paul Constant
Paul Constant has written about politics, books, and film for Newsweek, The Progressive, the Utne Reader, and alternative weeklies around the country.