More and more of us are working more and more hours — but we’re not getting paid for it.
Our overtime laws are so out of date that all your employer has to do is pay you a salary and claim the nature of your job makes you “exempt” from overtime... and then they don't have to pay you an extra dime if you work more than 40 hours in a week.
The good news is that the Washington State Department of Labor & Industries has released a plan to restore overtime protections for hundreds of thousands of salaried workers — regardless of whether they’re classified as hourly or salaried, and no matter what fancy title their boss gives them.
"Businesses can never pay you what your time is worth — your time is invaluable. But they don’t even try.
I don’t want the money I want the time."
— Sidney Kenney, service provider & former restaurant worker, Tumwater
Time is money — employers shouldn’t just get both.
The idea of getting a salary and getting overtime may sound weird, but as recently as the 1970s, more than 60% of salaried workers got time-and-a-half when they worked more than 40 hours a week. Now only 7% get overtime pay — and it’s not because we’re working less.
Front-line managers in food & retail are often paid a salary, made exempt, and then expected to work as many as 60 hours a week or longer in order to get the job done — without getting paid any extra money for all that extra time.
Office-based workers are frequently paid a salary, made exempt, and then expected to be available 24/7 to do whatever the employer needs done, whenever it needs doing.
No matter what kind of work you do, if your employer classifies you as exempt from overtime, that means you don’t get any extra pay no matter how many extra hours you work. And if you don't get any extra pay for working extra hours, your employer can treat your time like it doesn't count.
It’s time for Washington state to restore overtime protections and bring our working lives back into balance — because we’re human beings, and our time counts too.
In our own words...
In the times that I’ve stayed and worked a 17 hour day to complete a project or task, the reward for being successful is to be given more work. It really shouldn’t be set up this way, though. You can never get to the end of the work, so at a certain point, I meet my threshold and give up.
Employers should either have to pay their employees a fair living wage in exchange for the option to expect that employee to output as much work as two employees, or give more hours to current employees or hire additional employees.
If employers had to pay time-and-a-half for any hours worked over 40 hours it would make it so that the lack of a social life or even time to relax on the weeks that you had to work 6/7 days with 60+hours was slightly worth it.
I regularly put in between 45-60 hours a week and still make as much as I would had I only worked 40 hours, but the overtime is necessary to keep the business functional and compliant.
To add insult to injury, jobs that often pay less than a living wage are also the jobs where you are expected to work additional hours as a salaried employee. I once had a job where I was making $8/hr (which required a college degree, by the way). However, I usually worked 50-60 hours each week, and was never paid overtime.
“I have over thirty years experience in human resources as a business owner, consultant, and an employee. As an employee, I often worked well beyond the hours for which I was officially paid. In some cases, I worked in a position that was misclassified as “exempt.” Unfortunately, many people in business are classified as exempt from overtime, but should be getting paid for overtime.”
“He can’t spend quality time with his kids — he doesn’t get home until close to their bedtime, so he can’t share an evening meal with them and keep up with what’s going on in their lives. If he were paid for working overtime, he’d have more money to do things with his kids, he could afford to have his daughter in band, and he might not have to find another place to live because his rent is too expensive.”
I wanted to do well in my new job, be seen as a positive and flexible coworker, and learn new skills like managing volunteers and public speaking, so I was enthusiastic at first about working overtime and taking on so much.
Working overtime has affected my ability to help my kids with homework, attend sporting activities, and generally be there when they need me. This last Fourth of July, for example, I was exhausted so I went to sleep early instead of supervising activities with my kids. Because I was exhausted from working long hours, I chose to sleep, rather than supervise my kids.
When I worked as a fishmonger at Whole Foods Market they wanted to promote me to associate team leader, a salaried position, but I refused. In the seven years I worked there, I got maximum raises at every evaluation but declined invitations to move up because I knew what those positions were like. The corporation basically owned you. You’re one phone call away from having to drop everything and go to work.
In my case, what has been done to my coworkers over the last twenty years impacts other employers, who will find me (and others like me) suspicious of their intentions when they advertise for new positions as exempt.
Making games has been a dream of mine since I was a kid. I just never knew someone would take advantage of my passions. It’s incredibly rare to get a salaried position testing video games—something like one out of a thousand—so I felt like I had achieved a dream when I got that job. I never spoke up because I didn’t want to rock the boat. Those who did speak up were seen as venomous, and they were let go.
Then one day I realized that I was now working for less than minimum wage, in part because our salaries did not rise when minimum wages went up. There certainly was nothing prestigious about that kind of salaried work.
I didn’t learn that my last job was classified as overtime-exempt until I had already quit my other job and was signing contracts on my first day. It was advertised as 9-6 but after starting I found out that was just the minimum hours.
I work twelve to fifteen hours a day, four days a week and get paid $36,000 in salary, plus tips. The tips are probably putting me close to $40,000 a year. I’m 43, turning 44. It doesn’t sound very old, but working these kinds of hours, you can’t do it forever. I’m reaching the end of my ability to work that pace.
They wanted to save on payroll as much as possible, so if an hourly employee called out sick and you were overtime-exempt, the expectation is that you're going to stay. And you’d be doing literally the same job as the person who called out, and then also your other job. Some hourly person called out sick, and I'm a free body. It was pretty common to be there for 13 hour days.
I think mothers are especially limited in their job mobility because of the expectation of overtime. My ex-husband worked on salary, often putting in 50 - 60 hours a week, which limited his availability for the kids, but also my availability for work, especially after we got divorced. I always had to be careful to take jobs where there wasn't that expectation of overtime, because someone needed to be there for the kids. His career advanced, and mine stayed stagnant, and I paid the cost of his additional hours in that sense.”
What it comes down to is that I have more days behind me than in front of me, and I want to have time to enjoy my life unburdened by work issues and problems. I'm exchanging the limited hours of my existence for the ability to afford both essentials and luxuries. That creates a fine balance between working to live and living to work. And my employer gets greater benefit from my effort than I do.
This treatment of grocery store managers is standard in the industry. It’s how everyone is treated at this store and at the last store where I worked. And the managers just expect to be treated this way.
“As the system is set up now, competition almost forces employers to hire as few workers as possible and work them as many hours as possible.”
“Because it didn’t cost my employer anything to keep me working whatever hours they wanted, they didn’t have to take my time into consideration. And so they didn’t.”
As a full-time employee in administration and development, my annual salary was $34,000 a year, with no paid overtime. I was responsible for training volunteers outside of normal work hours, working programmed events that took place from 6 - 10 PM, and administering our annual gala and other fundraising events associated with a major capital campaign, so I frequently worked overtime without compensation.
"I was a chef/kitchen manager at a restaurant in the Ballard neighborhood in Seattle and got paid a salary of $29,000 a year.
In exchange, I worked 60-90 hours every single week.”
They try to make folks exempt so they don’t have to pay extra. The way everything works, there’s so much turnover in doing the job. So if I can’t fill a shift any other way, then I have to fill in the shift myself. The shift has to be filled. If one of my hourly staff does it, it’s overtime pay. If I do it, it’s free for the company. But it’s the same shift.
When companies classify workers like me as "overtime exempt," they're basically getting free labor. There were days where I'd spend 14 hours at work instead of 10 because my night cook got sick. I ran through that restaurant like a hurricane, forgetting to take breaks, forgetting to eat even when there was food right in front of me. Someone had to pick up the slack, and since I was the manager, it fell to me. But it affected the entire staff — constantly working unpaid overtime put me at odds with my crew and made me a worse manager.