America’s Overtime Blues

Blackened by soot, sticky with sweat, they toil in the coal mines of Wyoming. Already exhausted and near the breaking point, workers are outraged when their company says they must work 12-hours each day in the belly of the hills, pulling out the black coal that will help create energy for the nation.

This might sound like a scene from the turn of the last century. But, it's actually May 2000, nearly 100 years after workers fought and won the eight-hour day. Hundreds of employees at the Pittsburgh and Midway Coal Company Mine in Kemmerer, Wyoming walk off the job, refusing to yield to an order to work 12 hours at a time in the mines.

So, what gives? Didn’t the issues of eight-hour days and weekends get resolved after the bloody labor disputes that marked the beginning of the last century? Why are workers in America fighting these battles all over the U.S. all over again?


In the year 2000, the U.S. is more prosperous and productive than ever. The unemployment rate is at an historic low of 4%. With the increased productivity comes more of a demand on the workforce. The International Labor Organization finds that Americans now work longer workweeks than our counterparts in all other industrialized nations, including Japan. Overtime and workday issues have been a major part of several recent contract negotiations in recent years, including Verizon, the United Mineworkers, Boeing, and several healthcare industry negotiations.

Richard Bank with the AFL-CIO says the workforce is reaching a breaking point. "Pressures being put on employees in this cut throat, global economy are increasing." Bank says, "for a lot of people, job stress and
mandatory overtime have become intolerable." Pressures are also being put on the family. "Both parents are at work, and both may be subject to demands on their time. It just completely disrupts the ability to run a house and have a regular family life."

So, what’s the answer?

One answer might be found in the balance of power between employee and employer. And, who exactly holds the power in the year 2000? Patrick Cleary with the National Association of Manufacturers says it’s the employee. "As the labor force has tightened and the pool of available labor has shrunk, you see employers all across the country making accommodations – whether it’s flexible work schedules or time off for their kids. We really didn’t see that in the 50s and 60s." Cleary argues that, "any worker today that’s in a situation where they find themselves unhappy can freely change jobs – and they do."

But, do today's employees really have that kind of flexibility?

Workers certainly are using their feet to make their demands known, and in massive numbers. In August 2000, more than 86,000 employees with telecommunications giant Verizon Communications Inc. walked off the job. One of the major issues in that dispute was mandatory overtime. The company eventually met employee demands by lowering the weekly overtime cap and increasing funding for work and family programs to give employees greater flexibility. But, it’s never been easy to take a stand. Strikes can be so detrimental to work and personal life, that they are often used only as a last resort.

Overtime is not always the enemy. For many employees, it’s really a double-edged sword. On one hand, employees want to spend more time away from the workplace. But, on the other hand, those extra hours can give you a nice boost in your paycheck. The U.S. Department of Labor finds that overtime can make up 10-20% of some people’s earnings.

Employers face a similar struggle with the thorn called overtime. The AFL-CIO says employers cut costs by working employees overtime rather than hiring new ones. Many employers would actually like to hire more employees - but with a 4% unemployment rate, where do they find them? Bill Rogers with the U.S. Department of Labor says that with such a low unemployment rate "we are seeing skill shortages throughout the economy. Overtime is one technique that employers use to deal with skill shortages."

In a recent study done by NAM, 90% of employers reported having trouble finding workers in at least one job category. NAM spokesman Pat Cleary says that many employers in his organization say finding and keeping qualified employees is their single biggest problem. In this climate, Cleary says, when employers do find employees, they’ll do whatever they can to keep them, including making concessions about workday flexibility and overtime.

Companies do not always offer these concessions up front. In yet another recent labor dispute, United Airlines employees took on the company over workday length and flexibility. But, after some touchy negotiations, both sides were able to come to the table and resolve that dispute.

The struggle over the workday and overtime goes on as it has for the past 100 years. The answer seems to be the same now as it was then – employees working for more control in the workplace, making demands, and continuing with the century old struggle to improve the state of the workday.

By the way, those coal miners in Kemmerer, Wyoming recently won their hard fought battle against the 12-hour workday. They agreed to go back to work in August 2000, after the company scrapped the 12-hour idea.

By Gina Baleria


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