clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Mandatory overtime is garbage

Your boss is the boss of your job, not of your life.

A clock with a frowning face painted on it.
Work isn’t just about money, it’s also about time.
Zac Freeland/Vox

The Polk County Professional Firefighters union is in the throes of its final weeks of bargaining before its current contract expires at the end of the month. The more than 500-member organization in Florida is fighting for one overarching issue: better work hours, and the extent to which its firefighters are being stretched. And so multiple days a week, on its Facebook page, it posts how many of its members are working mandatory overtime. September 15: 24. September 12: 22. September 6: 25.

A lot of the people like the extra money that comes with overtime, explained Jon Hall, vice president of Polk County Professional Firefighters. “There’s people who want overtime anyway, so having openings within our system, it’s not a terrible thing, our guys like to have the opportunity. It just has gotten to a point that it’s so much that it’s unbearable,” he said. “It’s being able to work it versus being forced to work it.”

And the schedule is grueling. Generally, firefighters work a 24 hours on, 48 hours off system. Because of his department’s mandatory overtime rules — they’re expected to be on call for it two days a month and often wind up being required to do more — Hall said Polk’s firefighters are working an average 65-hour week. Time-and-a-half overtime pay kicks in when they reach 106 hours across two weeks. A 24-hour shift can easily turn into a 48-hour shift, and in some instances, it can become a 72-hour shift. The people required to stay are generally the ones who are already there, and they basically can’t say no. “It’s job abandonment, and you’re looking at termination,” Hall says.

Much of the discussion around the state of work recently has focused on remote work, automation, and what jobs might look like in the future. That often overlooks longstanding issues affecting millions of workers across the country that, while not the flashiest of issues, have a real impact on people’s lives.

Many American workers have very little control over their schedules. For some, that translates to too few hours, or a complete lack of control of when they’re expected to work week to week. For others, it means too many hours they can’t say no to. Often (but not always), mandatory overtime comes with a carrot of being paid time and a half for their labor. Sometimes, the carrot isn’t worth it, but workers have no choice. Their employer also has the stick and can fire them for refusing.

“For many, many workers, they don’t really have a right to refuse forced overtime. It’s just a growing problem,” said Paul Sonn, state policy program director at the National Employment Law Project (NELP). “It causes huge stress for families; it fuels greater on-the-job injuries.”

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) notes that long work hours and extended, irregular shifts increase the risks of accidents and injuries, contribute to poor health and fatigue, and increased stress and illness, among other effects. Mandatory overtime contributing to these issues isn’t good in any industry, and in some of the industries where it can be quite prevalent — in manufacturing, warehouses, health care, and, as Hall points out, firefighting — it can be especially disturbing.

“The danger of being a fatigued employee is prevalent in any industry that you’re working with other people or machinery,” Hall said. “We’re operating million-dollar fire trucks and driving them down the road, making life-and-death decisions.”

Overtime pay: Okay. Overtime pay when it means missing your kid’s birthday: Not so fun.

The long and short of it is that the law does not prevent employers from implementing mandatory overtime. The Fair Labor Standards Act, which establishes some basics around work standards in the United States such as a minimum wage and time-and-a-half overtime pay when people go above a 40-hour work week, doesn’t generally put any maximum on the amount of time people can work. (There are some caveats, like if the time creates a safety risk, or certain limitations on certain states.)

In many jobs, the basic gist is that if your boss says you have to stay, you have to unless you want to be fired. And overtime pay isn’t always guaranteed. Managers are often exempt from overtime pay, and Sonn notes that many businesses do a bit of tomfoolery to have people who perform very little managerial duties declared as such. Salaried employees over a certain level aren’t required extra pay, either — namely, those making over $35,000 a year. (The threshold was supposed to be higher under an Obama administration proposal, but as Vox explained in 2019, the Trump administration lowered it.)

Heidi Shierholz, president of the Economic Policy Institute, a left-leaning think tank, and former chief economist at the Department of Labor, noted that even when workers are getting time and a half, their base pay is so low, it can be worth it for their employers to force them into working extra instead of bringing on others to staff up. “Time and a half was really supposed to make it so employers had skin in the game and wouldn’t have absurdly regular very long hours for workers, but the fact that for so many workers pay is so low ... if you’re an employer, you can game it out,” she said. If you’re paying someone $8 an hour, $12 an hour for some extra hours a week doesn’t hurt as much as, say, $15 that would suddenly become $22.50.

For workers, it can create a grueling situation. Take a scan of Reddit, and you can find one worker complaining “mandatory overtime is killing my desire to be a human being,” describing 11-hour shifts Monday to Friday and then another eight hours on Saturday. Another poster called the practice “borderline slavery,” explaining that because of attrition rates and the need to complete their call center work, they were staying hours after their shifts ended.

Some states have laws setting some limitations, such as requiring at least one day of rest in seven. Sonn noted there have also been shifts in regulations around the health care sector in both red and blue states, including Texas, West Virginia, Missouri, and New Hampshire creating protections for mandatory overtime for nurses. “Some states also have, for extra-long hours, even higher overtime, premium pay requirements,” Sonn said.

Still, many workers are stuck in situations they’d rather not be in; if they want to keep their jobs, they don’t have the option of not working extra hours when their boss says they have to. “We have employment law that is so profoundly anti-worker,” Shierholz said.

Work is about more than $$$

Hall, who has been with his department for six years, is in a bit of a unique situation — not only does he work for the Polk fire department, but his wife does, too. So the mandatory overtime rule hits them doubly hard. “It’s very hard to plan your schedule appropriately,” he said. “You are willing to put up with these problems for a reasonable amount of time, and eventually it comes to a point where either you can’t or don’t want to put up with the problems anymore.”

Mianne Nelson, communications director for the Polk County Board of County Commissioners, declined to comment directly on negotiations with the union but said that the county “most certainly would like to be more fully staffed” in an email. She said the county is facing challenges in competing for workforce and that as positions are filled, that will reduce both mandatory and voluntary overtime.

When we sign up for a job, we sign up for a certain set of parameters and agreements — what our tasks will be, what our pay will be, dress codes, uniforms, etc. And in some cases, we also sign up for overtime, mandatory and voluntary, and other circumstances where flexibility isn’t an option, or hours aren’t guaranteed. But it’s worth wondering whether it has to be this way, especially in the latter circumstances, and even more especially when asking for some leeway can mean you lose your job.

“There’s essentially no scheduling protection for workers in this country, and we have a problem on both ends of the spectrum,” said Sharon Block, a law professor at Harvard and former Biden administration official. “You don’t even have protections when you complain about it unless you do it collectively. But if you, just as an individual, go to your boss and say, ‘I’m just really tired of working all this overtime, do you think you could not schedule me for overtime this week?’ An employer can fire you for that.”

Block worked for Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA) and recalled his efforts to push forward legislation that would just give workers the right to request flexible work options without jeopardizing their careers. Those efforts failed.

Shierholz said unions are a good place to start in addressing workplace flexibility, including forced overtime, but she emphasized that even unionized employees have to deal with the issue — as is the case with Hall and so many workers like him. Unions are able to fight for parameters, but there are no guarantees they’ll get them. “It’s not like unionized workers never have to work forced overtime, but they will have some control over those kinds of employment conditions,” she said.

Hall’s firefighter union is trying to negotiate for a couple of different options to reduce their hours and address staffing issues that lead to so many members on mandatory overtime. If the issue isn’t fixed, it becomes a circular problem: New firefighters come in, they are mandated to work unsustainable overtime so they quit, and then the people left end up with even more unsustainable overtime, as do new people who come in. And again, Hall is unionized, so at least his unit can fight for better conditions.

For workers who aren’t, the situation can be even harder to maneuver. One could envision a scenario where political change is achieved so that all workers, unionized or not, get more rights to flexibility, there are limits to mandatory overtime, and overtime pay applies to more workers. A spokesperson for the Biden Department of Labor said they’ve held listening sessions on overtime rules and are in the process of a “comprehensive review” of how they’re handled. What will happen remains to be seen, but workers don’t exactly have many cards here in the face of businesses and lobbyists.

“We have a concentration of power, political and economic power, in this country in the wealthy and in big corporations. They exert that power to undermine efforts to get new laws passed,” Block said. “Big corporations put shareholders first, and part of putting shareholders first is putting workers, seemingly, last.”

California recently passed a law aimed at improving fast food workers’ pay and conditions, including establishing a council that, in part, can set maximum work hours. It is already being challenged by the industry. In the public sector, budgets are constantly being stretched, with workers often bearing the brunt of that, including more compulsory overtime.

The pandemic and current economic conditions have brought up several important conversations about work, including work-life balance. As the saying goes, time is a precious commodity, and it’s not an outrageous ask for workers to have more control over that commodity.

We live in a world that’s constantly trying to sucker us and trick us, where we’re always surrounded by scams big and small. It can feel impossible to navigate. Every two weeks, join Emily Stewart to look at all the little ways our economic systems control and manipulate the average person. Welcome to The Big Squeeze.

Sign up to get this column in your inbox.

Have ideas for a future column or thoughts on this one? Email emily.stewart@vox.com.