Corporate America Flouting Overtime Laws: What Does It Mean?

Last Updated Oct 22, 2007 1:46 PM EDT

What Does It Mean?Slate, the online magazine, is running a series of five articles entitled "American Lawbreaking." Sounds like something to check out after seeing the new Jesse James movie, but in fact the articles are much more subtle than six shooters and swagger. They examine "the laws we are allowed to break in America and why." The author, Tim Wu, asks,
Why are there dead zones in U.S. law? The answer goes beyond the simple expense of enforcement but betrays a deeper, underlying logic. Tolerated lawbreaking is almost always a response to a political failure--the inability of our political institutions to adapt to social change or reach a rational compromise that reflects the interests of the nation and all concerned parties.
Which is interesting, but what does it have to do with management? Reading the articles, I was reminded of a Business Week cover story from earlier this month, "Wage Wars" about the proliferation of lawsuits stemming from violations of wage and hour rules. The number of these cases have more than doubled between 2001 and 2006, reflecting the widespread disregard for the rules. Put the two articles together and you realize that the failure of companies to abide by "wage and hour" laws, reflects a more general confusion.
Depression-era laws aimed at factories and textile mills are being applied in a 21st century economy, raising fundamental questions about the rules of the modern workplace.... Generally, workers with jobs that require independent judgment have not been entitled to overtime pay. But with businesses embracing efficiency and quality-control initiatives, more and more tasks, even in offices, are becoming standardized, tightly choreographed routines. That's just one of several factors blurring the traditional blue-collar/white-collar divide. Then there's technology: In an always-on, telecommuting world, when does the workday begin and end?
As one very successful lawyer engaged in pursuing these claims says, there is now such a thing as "the rank and file of a white-collar proletariat," who are now "wearing sports coats and processing information instead of wearing coveralls and processing widgets."

Tech workers and mortgage brokers among others, often have jobs with little independence and simply repeat a choreographed series of actions, yet are often thought of as professional and therefore exempt from overtime. They rarely press claims as they often associate overtime "with a labor pool that is valued for brawn rather than brains. The notion of keeping track of their hours so they can get paid for long weeks strikes them as déclassé."

Perhaps it's time that both management and workers consider whether wearing a white collar is all that's required for someone to be truly "white-collar" is today's economy.

(Image of blue collar/ white collar worker by Vanity Press, CC 2.0)

  • Jessica Stillman On Twitter»

    Jessica lives in London where she works as a freelance writer with interests in green business and tech, management, and marketing.