Why I Worked Unpaid Overtime for Two Years

Rocking the boat always came with risks.

Photo: Krissy Venosdale/Flickr

When I first started working, the rules were simple: I worked, I got paid a set amount per hour, and if I worked more than 40 hours in a week, I got paid time-and-a-half for overtime. If my job was busy, I worked more and made more money, and if it was slow, I didn’t work as much and made less money. Time and money formed a quid pro quo.

Work and I got along pretty well until I started working salaried jobs, where I got paid the same amount regardless of how long I worked. While this made budgeting a lot easier, working for a salary involves an entirely new way of looking at work and responsibility, which unfortunately left me wide open to being taken advantage of.

My first salaried job in the U.S. was as a front office administrative assistant at a small-town Catholic school that’s no longer in operation. My job was a consolidation of three different positions: administrator of records, marketing assistant, and receptionist, and I was also expected to chaperone assemblies and fill in for teachers who had to leave early. In short, the job came with a lot of work all the time.

My official workday ran from 7:30 until 4:00 while school was in session, with a half hour for lunch. Unfortunately, I rarely got to take that half hour because I had to watch the front desk, so my lunches usually consisted of scarfing down a sandwich and a yogurt that I hastily had to put away if a parent walked in the door. I accepted this lack of lunch break as the reality of the job I’d signed up for, and figured I might as well make the best of it.

The job also came with a lot of e-mails to send, phone calls to return, events to plan, and paperwork to fill out, and most days the only way to finish it all was to stay past 4:00. I didn’t mind this at first (“Most jobs finish at 5:00, so it’s no big deal to stay an extra hour”), and saw it as a temporary push to master my new position. This was the mindset that led me to stay past 5:30, 6:00, and even 7:00 some nights in hope that if I could just get ahead of the workload, things would get easier.

In addition to all this, I had evening meetings to attend, weekend activities where it was “strongly suggested” I show my support, and school events where my presence was strictly required. I was even asked to pilot an oversized, hollowed-out pumpkin down a river for the town’s annual pumpkin boat race on a Saturday, an event I lost horribly after being pelted with squirt guns by my fellow racers.

The problem with all this overtime was that I was also trying to write a novel, apply to graduate school, and take more control over my life, and staying so late at work made these things more difficult and led to a lot of stress. Rather than take my anger out on my job, I felt it coalescing into layers of guilt, since I felt lucky to even have a job at all.

It was 2011, I’d just gotten back from teaching English in Japan, and no matter how much I’d dressed up my resume, my work history had pinned me as an unaccredited teacher with a liberal arts degree — not a good position to be in while the recession still lingered. Before being hired at the school, I’d been working on-call as a housepainter and for half days on weekends feeding the animals on a goat farm, both for $10 an hour. At least now I was making $24,000 a year at a job where I didn’t have to fend off angry roosters.

I started wondering whether there was anything I could do about my situation. Talking to my boss didn’t go over well — he suggested that I not work overtime if it was causing me stress, then during the same meeting insisted that I still do the seventeen tasks he’d given me that morning. I felt like Yossarian in Catch-22 where the colonial is constantly raising the number of missions to impress his superiors, leaving me no choice but to fly them.

This went on until the day I was able to steal a quick lunch in the school break room and, more out of boredom than anything else, started skimming through the federal labor laws poster tacked to the bulletin board. It had a lot of fine-print information about minimum wage and worker safety, but what caught my eye were the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) guidelines for which employees have to be paid overtime.

I’m paraphrasing here, but the FLSA basically states that while most employees are required to earn time-and-a-half pay for any hours worked over 40, companies are exempt from paying certain kinds of employees overtime based on their job duties. To be exempt from overtime pay, all three of the following must be true:

  1. The employee has to make at least $23,600 a year. (True for me, but just barely. The Department of Labor under President Obama was all set to raise this amount to $47,476, though the act was blocked by a federal judge.)
  2. The employee has to be paid a salary (also true for me).
  3. The employee has to be an Executive, a Professional in a “Learned Profession,” or an Administrator.

This last stipulation was the hardest to figure out — based on my actual job duties and level of responsibility, would the Department of Labor classify me as an Administrator? After a lot of internet searching (this site explains the tests pretty well if you’re interested), I concluded that because I didn’t have the authority to make actual decisions about the school, I didn’t qualify as an administrator and should have been making overtime pay.

I thought about what to do for a long time. Should I come forward with the proof that my employers were breaking the law and risk an angry confrontation that could jeopardize my already precarious position? The school’s financial situation wasn’t the strongest, and it was unlikely that they could afford to pay me overtime if I asked for it. If I switched to being paid hourly, they might even respond by cutting my work time. Rocking the boat always came with risks.

In the meantime, knowing I wasn’t legally required to work overtime gave me the confidence to start leaving at 4:00 and put off non-essential duties until later. I felt more in control, like at any moment I could tell my boss Ha! Federal law says I don’t have to stay past 4:00 or join the pumpkin boat race if I don’t want to, and there’s nothing you can do about it!

However, I stayed silent for a number of reasons.

The first was that for all the overtime I worked and events I had to attend, the school was pretty lax about letting me duck out early on teacher workdays or when I needed to be somewhere, flexibility I’d never had at other jobs. I also wasn’t required to work during the spring, winter, or Christmas vacations, which ran to a solid three weeks per year in addition to my blocks of sick and vacation time. These weeks off were strictly under the table and not written into my contract — trade-offs for being asked to sacrifice my evenings and weekends while school was in session.

Finally, and most prominently, my regular working hours didn’t apply during the summer, when I only needed to be at the school 30 hours a week, with even more freedom to leave early when the boss wasn’t around. Again, this agreement wasn’t written into my contract; it was strictly informal.

Were I to come forward with the news that my employers were breaking the law, I risked losing all of this time off, time I equated with the freedom to travel and get my non-work projects done. Being paid hourly would have meant an end to my long afternoons but also meant lower paychecks in the summer — and if my $24,000 yearly salary worked out to $11.53 per hour, 30 working hours in the summer meant losing $115 a week, or $460 a month. That was money I badly needed to cover my rent ($400 for a shared apartment) and student loans ($426 a month).

In the end I decided the risk wasn’t worth it, and that the real secret to surviving that job lay in handling my responsibilities better so I didn’t have to stay late. I also started saying no when my coworkers came at me with extra tasks and standing my ground when it came to lunch breaks — which a reshuffling of the admin schedule finally allowed me to take, alone, in a quiet room at the end of hall where I could read a book and not think about work.

But the decision not to come forward also stemmed from fear, since I needed that salary to pay my bills and needed the job to build my resume and move on to better things. I wasn’t anxious for a return to the anxiety-ridden days of scouring online job postings, so I made the best of a situation I shouldn’t have been in, and that legally shouldn’t have existed at all. I still wonder whether I made the right decision by choosing the safe route over the principles I believed in, and wonder what kind of deal I could have made if I’d tried.

I stayed at that job for two years, and got out just in time: near the end of my time there, the board of directions put forth a motion to make me and a few other employees work during school vacations, thus cutting out the three free weeks that so heavily influenced my decision to let things be. The announcement came a month after my acceptance to a graduate program in the Midwest that included a full assistantship and placed me in a better position to bargain for how I’d be spending my remaining months. After a frank conversation with the principal, it was decided that I could keep my last free vacation week — a partial victory over the battle for my time.

On my last day I had mixed feelings about leaving the job where I’d given so much but had also learned to take control. It was a hot, quiet day in August, and most of my coworkers were off or had left early. Though I still had a lot of packing to do at home, I stayed at my desk past 4:00, sending a surge of final e-mails and getting things ready for my successor. I finished as much as I could but somehow still couldn’t get it all — even on my last day, there was still too much work for one person to do in a 40-hour week. When I’d decided I’d done all I could, I wrote out a To-Do list for my replacement and left it for her to find on Monday.

That’s how I left the job — older, wiser in the ways of employment law, and determined not to be taken advantage of again.

Ian Rogers is a writer and English teacher originally from New Hampshire. He blogs about the hazards faced by creative people with day jobs at http://butialsohaveadayjob.com.

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