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What Happened to the 40‐Hour Workweek?

By Dru Murray

Americans are witnessing the demise of the 40-­hour workweek. The 40-­hour workweek was instituted in 1940 when Congress amended the Fair Labor Standards Act to protect employees from exploitation.

Later, Baby Boomers were told Americans would soon work less due to the introduction of computers into the workplace. That promise has died a terrible death.

Young Americans working regular full-time jobs clock in far more hours than their older counterparts did. Additionally, many work multiple part-­time jobs.

Reasons for Over 40 Hour Workweeks

The situation of Americans working more and more hours is blamable on numerous reasons, including:

  • Computers. Sadly, the idea that computers would reduced our workload has not proven true — they’ve made us work more hours! Many employers provide their employees with laptops so they can continue working at home in the evenings, on weekends, or even on vacations.
  • Cell phones. Cell phones have added to Americans’ crushing inability to unplug themselves from work. Workers often check their cell phones for messages or emails while driving, on breaks, in the evenings, or on weekends.
  • Low wages. The federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour has not changed since 2009. Meanwhile, the cost of everything from housing to food to cars to medical care has risen substantially. Some states have set minimum wages that may be higher than the federal minimum wage but overall, wages have not kept up with inflation. Not even close.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, “in cases where an employee is subject to both the state and federal minimum wage laws, the employee is entitled to the higher of the two minimum wages.” Texas’ minimum wage is $7.25.

Since so many Americans struggle to keep a roof over their heads and food upon their tables, they may request overtime or work more than one job. Many work regular jobs and part-­time ones, too.

  • Salaried positions. Salaried positions have become much more common. Workers in salaried positions are expected and pressured to work far more than 40 hours per week. Exemptions from having to pay overtime are given to employers of executive, administration, professional, computer, outside sales, and highly compensated employees. The salaries for executive, administration, professional, and computer employees must be at a “rate not less than $455 per week.” Highly compensated employees receive a compensation of $100,000 or more. Exemptions are NOT available for blue-collar workers or police, firefighters, paramedics, and other first responers. See www.dol.gov/whd/overtime/fs17a_overview.pdf.

A recent survey of American managers found 58% of them work more than 40 hours per week.

A young managerial editor at an educational company informed me she was putting in about 60 hours/week. Another young professional in a marketing department told me tearfully that her department had shrunk from 14 employees to just three (3). The result? She works on average 60-hour weeks, some of which include weekend travel to other cities.

If salaried employees figured out their hourly rates, many would be shocked. But perhaps they don’t have time to do this — they’re working too much.

All of these reasons are methods that corporations and small businesses use to exploit workers.

Devastating Fallout From Over-40 Hour Workweeks

Less Family Time Americans forced to work more than 40 hours per week have less time to spend with family and friends. As a result, workers who are parents and their children suffer from personal problems, including stress and guilt.

Bad Health Working more than 40 hours per week greatly increases individuals’ stress. Increased stress spells bad health that may end in strokes, diabetes, heart attacks, and cancer.

Anger/Frustration A greater-­than-40-­hour workweek leads to anger and frustration among workers, which results in even more stress and conflict in the workplace. Research has shown that after an employee puts in three 60-hour workweeks, productivity drops.

Action Plan to Regain 40-­Hour Workweeks

Americans need to demand that they work ACTUAL 40-­hour weeks. Different pathways for doing so are available:

Join/Start Unions

Unions have always championed 40-hour workweeks. Join one. Or if there is not one at your workplace or for your profession, start one.

Learn Your Representatives’ Stances

Learn the stances your government representatives take on working conditions. If you like what they’re doing, vote for them again. If you don’t, work for the opposition candidate.

Become Politically Active

Political parties have differing opinions about working conditions. Research what those opinions are. Contribute time or money or both to the one who promotes reasonable restriction on employers to prevent them from forcing their workers to work more than 40 hours per week.

 

Sources: “Here’s How the 40-hour workweek became the standard in America,” www.businessinsider.com/history-of-the-40-hour-workweek-2015-10

“Fact Sheet #17A: Exemption for Executive, Administrative, Professional, Computer & Outside Sales Employees Under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA)” www.dol.gov/whd/overtime/fs17a_overview.pdf

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