(OP-ED) Can New Overtime Rules Revive The American Dream?

“That’s why they call it the American Dream, because you have to be asleep to believe it.” —George Carlin

President Obama announced last week that he would be putting forth new overtime rules in a last ditch effort to revive the American Dream‘s dead corpse. While Democrats have been pulling a Weekend at Bernie‘s with the American Dream, the Republicans have already gotten past the mourning period. And if you were to ask them what happened, they’d say it was stabbed to death by a Mexican who got too close to a Koran. Though, most politicians seem to think that the solution lies within special interest money…. If only we could’ve broken up enough unions and killed environmental regulations for the Koch Bros. and other robber barons cut from the same cloth, things might have been different, right? If only we let them turn Theodore Roosevelt National Park into a giant parking lot, those few thousand jobs could’ve really turned things around for the lot of us.

Of course, most Republicans are already getting vocal about how helping out workers is bad for the employers. But, what they really mean is that this would be terrible for the people who pay for their campaigns. Because if they started paying their employees for all the hard-work they do after hours, their profit margins might not be that great. And they were really looking forward to getting that Congressman from Wisconsin this year, too.

“The rule will force employers to waste time and resources logging hours. It will also require workers to fit their lives into a mold that bureaucrats impose, not what works best for them.” —House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.)

Because having structure in your life is truly a terrible thing. The older I’ve become, the more I have heard the phrase “work-life balance” (did you notice that work comes first?). You often see it in job postings right under College degree required. In high school, it was beaten over my head until I was black and blue that if I wanted a good job I would have to go college. My options at the time were either work at my dad’s plumbing shop or continue my education. The prospect of literally and figuratively dealing with people’s shit day-in and day-out wasn’t all that appealing to my seventeen year-old self. My high school guidance counselor never said to me, “Hey, Kurt, you need to get a job that has a great work-life balance.” No, it was just get a college degree so that you don’t have to work at McDonald’s or worse, construction. And if you got the sheepskin, you could show up to your high school reunion in a Mercedes to show your hick friends how far you’ve come. So I went to college. Not because I wanted a Mercedes (not that I wouldn’t mind one), but because the counselor made it sound like if I spent thousands of dollars on a college degree that it would somehow turn into the Golden Ticket to a Willy Wonka-esque gated community called the American Dream…. That is if you work hard and keep your nose down.

But what they don’t tell you is that what they are calling the American Dream is just really an endless cycle of grabbing your ankles for your boss. You get that degree so that you can get that “well-paying” job and once you have it, it is pulling 50, 60 hour work weeks. Nights, weekends, early mornings, holidays, etc. If it describes a http://www.gallup.com/poll/175286/hour-workweek-actually-longer-seven-hours.aspxperiod of time, you’ve worked it. And I’ve been there. Here is thing: A company’s overtime policy is a grand mixture of the proverbial snowflake and asshole… they are all unique and everyone has one. And you should definitely ask about it. I did at my previous job and the response I got was this big long spiel about their great record of a perfect work-life balance and the employee’s time-management capability allows them to leave the office at 5 o’clock each night. But, overtime, that was something I wouldn’t have to worry about. Because what they really meant was that they weren’t going to be paying it.

I spent 18 months working a job where I was working 50-60 hours a week. I would show up at 8 or 9 am and work until things were finished. My manager on the other hand would stroll in at noon and would decide that 5 pm would be a perfect time to forward me client emails to handle for him because he had dinner plans or his friends had a Groupon for a psychic in Times Square. And it turns out that there are only so many times that your body can take waiting up until 3 am to hear from someone in China before it goes, “Nah, fuck this” and convinces your brain to go talk to your boss.

In short, this is what my boss told me:

  • You are salaried, there is no overtime for salaried employees.
  • You are technically a manager.
  • It is your fault for not having better time-management skills.
  • And for whatever reason: Don’t discuss your salary with other employees.

I might have been some kid from the Podunkville, Tennessee, working in New York City, but I wasn’t as stupid as they thought I was. Sure, I was stupid for putting up with their bullshit, but at least I was smart enough to look into the State’s labor laws. And I encourage you all to go out and do the same. In New York, it doesn’t matter if you are salaried. Or if your title is manager. You are owed overtime if you don’t have the power to hire and fire people and don’t have at least two people working under you. I also called up the Bar Association and dropped $65 to talk to a Labor and Employment Lawyer. The best advice he gave me was the same advice my father gave me: Write your time down. Anywhere and on anything. Write it on toilet paper, he said, the judge would still accept it if you have to sue for your overtime pay. And you should. It is up to your employer to carry the burden of proof… they have to show you the rules that say you don’t qualify for overtime. And employers work really damn hard to keep you from actually earning money. It’s a flaw in capitalism… in order to make money, well, you have to spend. It just isn’t profitable to pay people for the work they do. It’s why slavery was such a big hit. You paid once and got years of free labor out of the person. Things are much easier on your employer if you simply believe them and shut up about the whole thing. They especially like it if your colleagues are quiet about the whole thing as well. Matter of fact, the less you talk to your colleagues about money, the better it is for them. Because, my god, it would be pretty terrible if they had to pay you all the same, wouldn’t it?

And that’s why my former employer always stated that we weren’t to discuss our pay with other colleagues. They didn’t want it to come to light that they were paying people unbalanced because one of us might demand that they make as much for the same work as the next person. And just like withholding overtime pay from you, it has been illegal to tell employees not to discuss pay with colleagues since 1935 when the National Labor Relations Act was enacted.

The truth is the percentage of employees earning overtime pay went from 60% in the 1970s down to 8% today. So when you hear Republicans talking about how raising wages or paying overtime is bad for business and workers alike, what they are doing is spinning their anti-worker agenda out of fear of upsetting those that keep them comfortable through the bribes known as special interest money. If you work hard, why shouldn’t you be paid your fair share? Because they are afraid that if you actually make some real money and use that college education you paid for then you might have some real power as a collective. Bringing the American Dream back to life might mean you can actually achieve it. And that would be bad for business for them because you might be able to afford to vote them out of power… and lord forbid that they would actually need to get real jobs after they leave office and earn an honest buck.

If you need to look into your state’s labor laws, you can find them by clicking here.

Featured image designed by Kurt Doonesbury

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