The Salary Trap

The Salary Trap

(New Haven) The man, in his mid-thirties with an MBA, works for a large investment bank. He’s expected to spend ten to twelve hours a day on the job and most evenings makes conference calls from home to Asia to coordinate with clients there. Young professionals in a broad range of industries work 60 to 70 hours a week. Retail store “supervisors” are regularly asked to work beyond their shifts. These examples share another reality: all are salary jobs. Employers expect their salaried workers to put in long hours, without overtime pay, as the law says the non-salaried are entitled to.

We like to brag about our long hours. It’s a badge of honor to talk about the extraordinary amount of time you work because it makes the job seem more important. But, when you work that many hours a week, it’s hard to spend much time with a growing family or engage in other activities, like volunteer work, that are valuable to a society. There are psychological and physical impacts as well. Several studies have shown that productivity drops as hours increase. Our stress is increased by the pressures of not being home for children and the demands at work that are well beyond what one person can do in a “normal” workweek. Hard work is good, of course, but when workers accept long hours without pay, it’s the employer who really benefits, not the workers.

Not too many years ago salaried jobs were considered real plumbs. You had been promoted to a level where you had some supervisory authority and could depend on regular hours- usually 40-per week – and maybe a bonus at the end of the year. Those days are gone.

Here’s a related trend. A friend was bragging about her son’s new job recently. She said the company had a gym, a cafeteria with a real chef, and staff vacations together. Some workplaces now have sleeping and mediation rooms, psychologists and recreation directors. Pretty cushy right? Of course, while these amenities sound good, they serve a different purpose than altruism. They are designed to make the workplace comfortable so workers will spend much more time on the job. The idea seems to be to make the company the employees’ “family.”
But when you are paid in amenities, it means you are not paid cash. You dedicate long hours to the job, have huge workloads impossible to complete in 40-hours and get no overtime pay for it.

When I was a young reporter, in the early 1970s, it was common to put in 70 hours a week. Journalism has long been a competitive business and it was clear that my radio station could easily find ten other people who would be willing to take my job overnight. News doesn’t break only from 9:00 to 5:00 as well and I loved the work and didn’t mind the hours. I was single with no obligations to anything but the next story. I knew I had to “pay my dues” to move up to better jobs. But now, that model has extended to many kinds of work, jobs where there is often no clear way to move up, where there are no bonuses to speak of, and no overtime pay. And it’s not just young people, many older workers toil these kinds of hours.

Wage and hour laws have not been enforced effectively for a long time. Bosses can call a job “salaried” when it’s clearly not. Power has shifted to management as union influence has waned. The difficult economic times have added greatly to the fears around the issue. Workers are cautious about rocking the boat. So they sacrifice: their emotions, their health and their family and community life to keep a job. Today, five years after the beginning of the “great recession,” many companies boast large profit margins and are sitting on lots of cash. But they aren’t hiring. Could it be they are content to continue wringing as much as possible out of those “salaried” workers rather than hire new people? What is the long-term cost of these conditions on workers, their families and the greater society?

Our forebears fought for a forty-hour work week and extra pay for overtime. That effort was focused on blue collar jobs and made working conditions in factories more civilized. Now, it’s the white collar denizens of millions of cubicles toiling long hours without fair compensation, who deserve some attention.

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