Some Workers Gripe
Bosses Are Ordering
Too Much Overtime
Practice Aids Productivity,
But Some Employees Call
Getting Married? Prove It
By Joan E. Rigdon
The Wall Street Journal
(Copyright (c) 1994, Dow Jones & Co., Inc.)
In one of the more startling signs of an evolving relationship between
American labor and management, some workers have begun to revolt
against the practice of overtime.
Just three years ago, unions complained of idle factories and short work
shifts. But now the average workweek has hit a postwar high, and some
workers complain of outlandish hours and an almost-Dickensian
disregard for the disruption of their personal lives. Despite the 50%
premium paid for overtime hours, many think the money isn't worth it.
This week, workers struck General Motors Corp.'s Flint, Mich., plant,
partly to protest mandatory overtime that sometimes resulted in 66-hour
workweeks. Caterpillar Inc. workers struck in June to protest several
issues, including the suspension of several workers who refused to work
an overtime shift. Allegheny Ludlum Corp.'s steel plants were struck this
spring after some workers were required to work as much as 146 hours
in two weeks; the union is still pressing the company, to little avail, to hire
more workers and give them more control over their schedules.
Many companies are firing or disciplining employees who decline the
extra work. At GM, getting written up for seven separate "incidents,"
such as refusing overtime, is grounds for dismissal. Delta Air Lines
reservation clerks who had to work 50 to 58 hours a week during fare
wars say they got notes in their permanent personnel files if they declined
the overtime without a doctor's note. USAir Group recently fired a flight
attendant for delaying a flight while trying to get out of a last-minute
overtime assignment; she said she wanted to go home to care for a sick
child whose baby sitter had to leave.
It's all very counterintuitive, since many if not most hourly employees like
overtime. But now, there is "a lot of pressure on existing workers to up
the ante in terms of personal effort. That's come out of leisure time and
family time," says Stephen Roach, a Morgan Stanley economist. "That's
been one of the hidden costs of the productivity gains of the '90s. It's
productivity for the companies, but for the individual it certainly doesn't
feel that way."
The issue of overtime and overwork often comes up at this stage of an
economic recovery. But now labor economists think structural changes in
U.S. business not only magnify the problem but perhaps make it
The cost of health insurance and other benefits for new workers has
made paying overtime to current employees a bargain. Calculated over a
standard 38.5-hour week, blue-collar benefits now average $5.62 an
hour, up 24% since the last recession began in 1990, according to the
Employee Benefits Research Institute in Washington. That includes $1.45
in health insurance, up 41% since 1990. So, it's cheaper to pay overtime
to a $10-per-hour worker (at time-and-a-half, that costs $15 an hour)
than to hire a worker at the same base wage plus benefits ($15.62 an
And by paying overtime, the employer avoids the cost of training a new
In addition, just-in-time manufacturing techniques lead to enormous spurts
of activity and overtime to meet big orders. Companies have downsized
and re-engineered to spread more work among fewer people. Managers
have been toughened by relentless foreign competition and, worried that
the economy may turn down again, want to avoid new hiring.
These trends have raised productivity and driven labor costs per unit of
output below those in Japan and Europe and have helped American
companies gain ground in world markets. And companies are loath to
change the practices that got them there. Allegheny Ludlum, while making
some compromises with its steelworkers, says that if it gives in too much,
it will lose its ability to react quickly to demand. "Flexibility is the key to
satisfying customers," says Bruce McGillivray, the Pittsburgh company's
chief negotiator during the strike. "If we don't compete successfully, we
won't have jobs for anyone."
But some workers, especially in manufacturing, are burning out. James
Walters, an Allegheny Ludlum worker, had to work 42 days in a row last
year. He missed family weddings, funerals and his daughter's college
graduation in December. "I'm as flexible as anybody," he says. "But I still
want the company to realize that I have something other than A.L. I have
a life to live. Why can't I have that?"
America's 12.4 million manufacturing workers are logging, on average,
41.4-hour weeks, a level not sustained since the weapons-building frenzy
of World War II, the Labor Department says. Overtime is at its highest
level since the department began tracking it in 1956. So far this year,
manufacturing workers are averaging 4.4 hours a week of overtime, up
34% from four years ago. Moreover, the averages disguise the very long
hours imposed on a sizable minority of employees.
Juliet Schor, a Harvard economist who wrote "The Overworked
American," calls the 50% premium pay that the Fair Labor Standards Act
requires for overtime worked by nonprofessional employees a "disaster"
because it is low enough to encourage employers to demand long hours.
Moreover, the amount of overtime employees can be forced to work is
unlimited. Some economists advocate double-time pay, after 30 to 35
hours a week.
While many companies are addicted to overtime, so are many workers.
At a time when they are hearing about layoffs and don't feel secure in
their jobs, the cash is especially welcome. By working just one overtime
shift a week, a $10-an-hour worker gains a 30% raise. Don Perry, an
Allegheny Ludlum worker nicknamed "Hog" for repeatedly volunteering
for overtime, doesn't complain about working 48 to 60 hours a week.
"When you've just built a new house, it can be a good thing," he says. He
adds that by working one overtime shift, he can earn what his wife would
in a week if she took a job rather than care for their three children.
Aided by overtime, Damian Johnson will earn nearly $110,000 operating
a boring mill at Chrysler Corp.'s stamping plant in Warren, Mich. "I'm
making as much as a lawyer or a doctor," he says.
But no matter how much workers like the cash, there is one caveat.
"They want the right not to work overtime when it interferes with their
personal lives," says Ben Fischer, a labor professor at Pittsburgh's
Carnegie Mellon University.
What happens when a company denies workers that right is illustrated by
Allegheny Ludlum. Its 3,500 union workers are used to long, sweaty
shifts and occasional spurts of overtime. But during the last recession, the
company took a radical step that made overtime crucial: It slashed
inventories and introduced "cycle timing," which enables it to fill huge
orders in days instead of weeks without fattening its payroll. The
company simply changes workers' schedules frequently and requires them
to work overtime.
Cycle timing helped Allegheny to "achieve the highest level of delivery
performance" in its history and to strengthen customer relationships, its
1993 annual report stated. Partly as a result, last year's operating profit
jumped 51% from a year earlier to $70.8 million.
Until the strike, Allegheny's on-time-delivery record was 93% or better,
compared with its estimate of about 70% for the industry. Allegheny's
performance has wowed customers such as Tridon Inc., an auto-parts
maker owned by Devtek Ltd. of Canada. This summer, a Big Three auto
plant told Tridon it was about to shut down because it was short of hose
clamps. It wanted more than 200,000 clamps as soon as possible, and if
Tridon couldn't deliver, the auto plant would go to a competitor. Tridon
had ordered the raw materials for the part from Allegheny, but the
shipment wasn't due for four weeks.
Tridon's purchasing manager, Michael Woodside, called Allegheny for
help. The steelmaker responded with its "two-minute drill," a program for
filling emergency orders in a day and a half. Tridon then processed the
steel in a day and got the clamps to the auto plant on time to keep it
running. "Allegheny really does excellent work," Mr. Woodside says.
But in union halls in the tiny Pittsburgh-area towns of Brackenridge and
Leechburg, steelworkers don't share such customers' enthusiasm. They
are still smarting from the 69-day strike over overtime and other issues.
The strike ended in the spring, with the company agreeing to hire a few
dozen more workers and to pay four hours of wages as a penalty for
changing work schedules on less than 48 hours' notice.
But union workers say Allegheny is still trimming its work force -- using
two instead of three workers to run two machines, for instance. They also
say it willingly pays the penalty for last-minute overtime rather than
stopping it. Some workers talk of long shifts, of having to work overtime
even if exhausted or sick and of feeling like strangers in their own families.
Bryan Kiebler, who bundles and ships steel at the Leechburg plant, says
he earns a salary of about $40,000, plus $5,000 or more a year in
overtime. At age 36, he and his wife Patty have four children, their own
home in suburban Vandergrift, a 1988 Chevy pickup and a 1992 Dodge
minivan. The money is "nice," he says. "The more I can make, the better
off I am."
The price: Mr. Kiebler, who averages 48 hours a week and often
volunteers for overtime, has to work it even when he is sick. After a
midnight shift one day last November, he was told to work another shift.
He complained to his supervisor that he had to take a sick daughter to the
doctor but says he was told, "We don't schedule around your family
Mr. McGillivray, who is the company's senior vice president for human
resources, confirms that sentiment. "You can't take a day off because
something's going on in your family," he says.
Mr. Kiebler is irked by what he views as the company's campaign to milk
more work out of fewer workers. "They're really greedy," he says angrily.
Other workers also say Allegheny shows little regard for their personal
lives. Tom Hoffer, who cuts and welds defects out of specialty-steel
products, says overtime helped him build his own house and support his
family. But the company's demands for overtime nearly derailed his
December 1992 wedding and his first wedding anniversary.
A week before the wedding, his supervisor ordered him to work an
overtime shift the day after the ceremony. "I told the supe I was going to
get married and I need to take off Saturday. He said, `We're working
Saturday.' I said, `I'm getting married. This is once in my life,'" Mr. Hoffer
recalls. He got the day off -- but only after he found a replacement and
his boss asked the name of his bride and telephoned to verify that Mr.
Hoffer was indeed getting married, Mr. Hoffer says.
Last December, to celebrate their first anniversary, Mr. Hoffer and his
wife, Charlene, made dinner reservations for a Saturday at an inn in
Sharon, Pa., 90 minutes away. But two days before, his boss ordered
him to work that Saturday, from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. "I said, `I have an
anniversary dinner planned.' And they said, `We have a business to run,'"
he says. The couple canceled the dinner.
Mr. Hoffer now has a defense -- his answering machine. He leaves it on
all day so he can screen his calls and avoid answering any from the
In the Richards family in Natrona Heights, overtime has strained the
couple's marriage. Debbie Richards, an assistant schoolteacher, says she
sympathizes with her husband Jack, who grinds metal strips at the plant,
but she is tired of managing the household and raising three sons by
herself. This year, Mr. Richards missed one son's birthday, his own
birthday and the couple's anniversary. He missed his sons' wrestling
matches and Little League games.
Debbie Richards scoffs at the $5,000 to $8,000 a year that overtime
brings in, even though it helps pay their household expenses: "Yeah, you
can do things with it. But if you're not together as a family, what the hell
good is it?"
Mr. Richards usually winds up working a double shift at least three times
a month. Sometimes he doesn't find out until he is getting ready to leave
the first shift. The unexpected double shift ruined a planned vacation to
Lake Pymatuning in Ohio last year. That day, Mr. Richards was due to
get off work at 8 a.m. His wife expected him home at about 8:15. She
awakened the children at 6 to get them ready, packed a picnic and
loaded the car.
Mr. Richards called with the bad news at 8:30. "For the first 45 minutes,
I was so angry," his wife recalls. She says she let the children "scream and
yell and get it out" before unloading the car.
To make up for the scotched trip, the Richards decided to go to the lake
this month, on Labor Day. By Sunday night, Mrs. Richards had packed
the car and prepared another picnic lunch of deviled eggs, hamburger
patties, sliced cantaloupe, watermelon and a bottle of wine. It was
packed and on the kitchen floor when Mr. Richards got the call ordering
him to work the next day. The trip was nixed again. The bottle of wine is
still sitting in their refrigerator.
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