“Why is it acceptable to expect someone to work 60 to 70 hours a week?”

Question: I find that the company I am working for is using the exempt-from-overtime status of many of its employees to avoid hiring additional employees to handle the abundance of work. Why is it acceptable to expect someone to work 60 to 70 hours a week for 7 years? I feel this is a form of abusive behavior.

If I work on a project, and my estimate to finish a task will be 1000 hours and be completed in 6 months, but the company wants the same work done in a two-month timeframe with the same number of resources, why is it they have all the flexibility to say “Get it done,” and the employees involved are not provided the resources or tools to succeed.

At what point does the overtime work become abusive? Don’t get me wrong – I am not looking for the easy way out, and I have always been a very hard worker, but this environment is beginning to create family and health issues.

Where is the accountability on upper management and the corporation to not abuse the exempt-from-overtime employees? Thanks.

Wheeling, West Virginia

Answer: Dear Terry: Every now and then a blog visitor asks a question that is so simple, basic and fundamental, it sort of stuns me, and takes me an extra degree of reflection and thought-gathering to answer.  

It reminds me of when my son, Sam, was about 5 years old, he looked at me in puzzlement and earnestly asked me, “Daddy, you always watch the news; why don’t you watch cartoons?” You know something, it took a few minutes to figure out an honest answer. (Like many people my age, I have now actually started to prefer cartoons to the day’s news.) Your question is such a question. Here are my thoughts:   

1. Like most voluntary relations and activities, the employment relation is what you make it, or allow your employer to make of it for you. Whether it is dating, friendship, or being a patron of a restaurant, most associations between people are voluntary. Both “sides” or “partners” can come and go as they wish. Few are involuntary. Employment is voluntary because slavery is outlawed. So, it could be said, your employer is asking for more, more and more hours, with less, less and less resources, because you and other of its employees are allowing it to do so, and not leaving due to the abuse. I know that sounds cold-hearted, but there is at least some truth in it.

2. Many would say, in response, that employment is not voluntary at all, because we all need to feed, house and clothe our families and ourselves. There is real truth to this view, as well unless, that is, your Grandfather invented the cell phone, or something like that, in which case you may not need to work and earn a living. Economic necessity is the daily truth for nearly all of us; work is not “voluntary.”

For this reason, people often feel coerced, without any say or way of standing up for themselves, and surely fearful of losing their jobs if they dare stand up in any fashion. And it is worse in difficult economic times, like those we experience today.

3. Our society and government recognize the “involuntary nature” of employment, and so have set up certain “limits” on how much, and to what degree, an employer can “exploit” or “take advantage of” its employees. As just a few examples, our society has (a) outlawed slavery as cruel and inhumane, (b) outlawed child labor, as not conducive to the education and growth of our children in their more tender years, (c) established minimum wage laws, so that all employees must be paid at least a certain amount of income, and live a certain minimal economic level, and (d) enacted occupational safety laws, so that fewer people get injured on the job. Many other examples exist. So, you see, there are some “limits” on some types of the “abuse” you speak of.

For people like yourself, who are “exempt” from the overtime provisions of state and federal law, these “limits” are more limited, and less effective, when it comes to hours you must work.  

4. Over and above the minimum legal standards set by our government, it is up to employees – either united into unions, or on their own – to “negotiate” a better level of treatment. Historically, labor unions were the primary force advocating for improved conditions and terms of working, on a worldwide basis. The struggles of the labor movement, especially in its early years, raised awareness of what you call the “abusive” nature of the way many employers treated their employees, and brought about the fairer, higher standards we have come to enjoy, including such things as paid sick time and mandatory overtime. Make no mistake about it: the struggles to make the workplace a fairer, more decent and less abusive place required true battles – with many suffering arrest, injury and even death. Fighting for fairness is not easy.

With the number of employees represented by labor unions on the decline, worldwide, it has come to pass that people need to stand up for themselves to make their workplaces fairer, at least for them.

5. Through our blogsite, we are trying to help people do – for themselves – just what you have identified “someone” has to do: make the workplace less abusive and fairer, not by picketing or striking, but by “navigating and negotiating” with employers. I firmly believe no one can help people better than they can help themselves, and in the simple notion that “If you make yourself valuable enough, and then ask for what you are worth, the sky is the limit on how much you can improve the way your employer treats you.” It is a very simple notion, yet for many a difficult concept to comprehend, and incorporate into your daily life. But for those who do “get it,” there is a certain freedom, a kind of exhilaration, and a true “awakening” that is quite exciting.

Teaching people that they can, are allowed, and free to do such “navigation and negotiation” is the first task. Teaching them how to do that is the second task before us. 

6. Dignity is never “given,” but instead must be “taken.” So many people wait for years and years to be treated fairly, and sooner or later just get used to the abuse they suffer. That is a dangerous kind of demoralization. Don’t wait years and years for your employer to be fair to you; instead, start today the process of making it in your employer’s self-interest to be good to you in all the ways you deserve. Mutual self-interest is the “guiding” light of navigation and negotiation between employers and employees. 

But you must, sooner or later, start the process by making yourself valuable and known for your value, and then to be someone who says, literally and figuratively, “I want to be treated in a better way, in terms of hours, compensation, title, benefits, opportunity for advancement, etc.” 

Dignity, freedom and power are, in this way, “taken,” and not “given.” That message, and the ways to achieve what you seek, comprise the essence of what this blogsite is trying to do, worldwide, forever, the “hard” way, but the way that truly works. 

Terry, I hope this makes sense to you. These thoughts are the product of lessons of history, that must be learned again and again by each person and in each generation.   

My best to you,
Al Sklover

P.S.: New! We now offer by digital download to your tablet Mr. Sklover’s classic, “Fired, Downsized, or Laid Off,” the unofficial “bible” of how to negotiate severance. If you would like to obtain a digital copy for your tablet, just [click here].

P.P.S.: If you would like to speak with me directly about this or other workplace-related subjects, I am available for 30-minute, 60-minute, or 120-minute telephone consultations. (Even 5-minute “Just One Question” calls). Just [click here.] Evenings and weekends can be accommodated.

Repairing the World –
One Empowered and Productive Employee at a Time ™

© 2012 Alan L. Sklover, All Rights Reserved.

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