Who’s time is it?

Over the course of this Labor Day weekend, as we celebrate workers by barbequing various meats and veggie dogs while enjoying one last swim at the pool, many of us have an extra day off. Yet too many workers don’t know whether they’ll have to work this three-day weekend. Someone has to staff retail stores or serve restaurant customers, but many won’t know until the last second whether they’re scheduled to work over the holiday. 

In the United States, we don’t have many rules that cover our work schedules. At the federal level, we have only one law, The Fair Labor Standards Act, which was first put in place nearly 80 years ago. Today, the law requires that some workers be paid time-and-a-half for all hours worked beyond the standard 40-hour workweek. But not all workers are covered by this rule—not by a long shot. 

{mosads}The Department of Labor estimates that one in three (33.6 percent) of the total U.S. workforce is not covered by the overtime provisions. These are mostly salaried employees, but not all of them with hefty paychecks. The threshold for covering salaried workers is quite low—about $23,600 a year—and hasn’t been updated for more than a decade. That’s why the U.S. Department of Labor’s proposed new rule to raise that threshold to $50,440—about what it would be had the 1975 level been updated each year for inflation—is such big news. If enacted, the share of workers ineligible for overtime pay would fall to somewhere between 23 and 30 percent. 

This is an important step forward, but it’s not enough for today’s workers. First, this change won’t help many of those who have to work too much. The Fair Labor Standards Act does not prohibit overtime but rather makes it more costly for employers to require long hours from at least for some of their employees. Paying more for that 41st hour of work certainly increases take-home pay and makes employers wary of requiring long hours, but it doesn’t mean people don’t have to put in extra time at work. 

These rules won’t help those who are compelled to put in “mandatory overtime.” These employees work extra hours, often with little or no advance notice, regardless of whether they want to or not. There’s very often no option to say no. It doesn’t matter whether this leaves you scrambling for childcare or having to miss the family dinner—again. 

But, it also doesn’t address one of the biggest issues scheduling issues for today’s workers, so-called “just-in-time scheduling.” Too many workers today have lost control over their own time. According to new data from University of Chicago professors Susan J. Lambert, Peter J. Fugiel, and Julia R. Henly, about four in ten young workers ages 26 to 32 know their work schedule a week or less in advance. This is because many employers finely calibrate employee schedules to match the vagaries of consumer demand. 

That study resonated with my life. When I visit my family on the West Coast, I reach out to my cousins so I can make sure to see them. But that can be near impossible. They never know their schedules and they cannot turn down work when they are offered it. It’s not just that they couldn’t live without the income from that shift; their bosses may not give them shifts or even fire them if they complain. Further, while they needed the money for school, but their unpredictable schedules made it hard to prioritize their class schedule. 

Just-in-time scheduling and mandatory overtime (paid and unpaid) push all the responsibility for adjusting to unusual schedules onto workers and their families. This reduces worker’s control over their schedule and work-time, exacerbating conflicts between work and family life affects the economic cycle by reducing job satisfaction, increasing stress, and limiting—and making unpredictable—time for family, which in turn increases workplace turnover and lowering productivity. 

The Department of Labor asked the public to comment on their new overtime rules for salaried workers, with those comments due on the eve of the Labor Day weekend. Advocates fear that a backlash from employers could gut the rule or even prevent it from happening. These are important new rules and should be put in place. But workers also need rules that give us all more control over our time. The Schedules That Work Act proposes a set of reforms that would give workers more predictable and stable schedules. It would give employees the right to ask their employer for a flexible schedule—without fear of retaliation—and would require employers do more to give their employees predictable schedules. 

In short, it would give us all back a little control over our time.

Boushey is executive director and chief economist at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth.


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