Good Old Days

August 2004


A discussion of the impending changes to overtime pay and the consequences for American workers.

At the end of the 19th century in America, there was a lot of discussion about what should be the "standard" work day. Progressives adopted the slogan "eight hours for work, eight hours for sleep, and eight hours for what you will." The business community took a dim view of this. They held that it wasn't anyone's damn business but theirs to say how long their workers worked, in what conditions they worked, or what happened to the workers as a result.

At this same time, the same business community thought it right and proper to employ children for 14-16 hours per day, 6 days a week. After all, children had always worked and owing to the fact that wages were so low, their families needed the income.

The story of the harm perpetrated against these children was a scandal that broke in the American press in the early years of the 20th century. Although the business community fought hard to prevent the enactment of limitations on child labor, by 1913 Federal legislation banned most types of child labor and regulated the remainder. At this time, however, there was no significant regulation of the workplace. Deprived of a steady stream of child labor, the business community increased the hours of adult workers. They also increased the production quotas for many workers. They did this without increasing their pay.

As a result, there was a great deal of labor unrest and union organizing. Considerable strife resulted from these activities until the Roosevelt administration passed the National Labor Relations Act of 1935. This guaranteed the workers' the right to organize for the purposes of collective bargaining. In the following year, federal regulations mandated the 40-hour work week and a minimum wage. These regulations required that if an employee were required to work more than 40 hours per week, they would be entitled to at least time and a half overtime pay.

The rationale for overtime pay was two-fold. In the first place, employers should be encouraged not to force their workers to work more than 40 hours per week. They should hire more people if they needed more work done, and not just overwork their current employees. In the second place, working longer hours affects the worker's health (mental and physical) and their family. It was argued that the working person should receive extra compensation for this additional burden, over-and-above full-time work.

This was the state of affairs from 1936 until 1990, when the act was amended to exclude some high-technology workers and "highly-paid" workers from receiving time-and-a-half overtime.

This brings us to the present, where our current administration is going to enact legislation that moves most people into the exempt employee classification. Millions of American workers, who formerly received overtime pay will lose this protection. Essentially, unless you make less than $24,000 per year, you will lose the legal right to overtime pay. Employers will have every incentive to increase work hours, right back up to 1900 levels, in order to stay "competitive." Millions of people will lose their jobs because employers will find it cheaper to employ 2 workers for 12 hours a day than 3 workers for eight hours a day.

And the reason for this is simple: greed. The business community supports the Bush administration's aims to make American business more competitive by making the compensation structure and working conditions of American workers the same as those in Malaysia or China. Far from supporting the middle class, the Bush administration is taking radical steps to eliminate it. How much longer will it be before the Department of Labor begins publishing reports about the benefits of the work ethic to youth?

Valid XHTML 1.0 Transitional Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.