For more than 100 years, May Day has been celebrated as International Workers’ Day, a day of marches and rallies and protests led by immigrant workers across the country. And the first May Day of them all, back in 1886, was led by immigrant workers fighting for one of the most basic labor rights there is: the eight-hour work day.
Thanks to their movement, the basic standard of a 40-hour workweek was established, with overtime pay for workers who put in more than 40 hours.
But 133 years later, overtime pay is no longer a reality for hundreds of thousands of working people in our state.
In fact, the average salaried worker puts in 49 hours a week on the job.
A quarter of salaried workers report clocking more than 60 hours a week.
And almost none of them get a dime of extra pay when they work all these extra hours.
Because our state’s overtime rules haven’t been updated in more than four decades, pretty much all an employer has to do is tell somebody they’re salaried, maybe offer up a fancy-sounding job title and pay them at least $24,000 a year … and then make them work as many hours as they want to. Without any additional pay for the additional hours.
The good news is that the Washington State Department of Labor & Industries (L&I) is in the process of updating our overtime rules. Workers across the state have been calling on L&I to set a new standard that says if you’re paid less than triple the minimum wage (about $75,000 a year), you get overtime pay when you work overtime hours, no matter whether you’re salaried or hourly, and no matter what your job title is.
This would be a big change, but it would simply bring our overtime rules back in line with historic standards. When the eight-hour day was first established, the salary threshold for overtime exemption was set at triple the minimum wage. And all the way through the 1970s it was maintained at a similar level. Back then, more than 60 percent of salaried workers got overtime pay when they worked overtime hours. Now less than 10 percent do — and it’s not because salaried workers are putting in fewer hours.
L&I is expected to release a draft overtime proposal in the next few months. By taking a bold step to restore overtime rights, our state can once again lead the country by ensuring that kitchen managers, software testers, nonprofit service providers, administrative employees and other salaried workers actually get paid overtime when they work overtime. And that means hundreds of thousands of people in our state would get more money in their paychecks, more time to live their lives, or some of both.
Our whole economy would benefit, too: Ensuring that employers have to pay for long work hours would motivate them to reduce long work hours. And that would mean higher productivity, less burnout, less turnover and improved health and safety at work.
It would mean hundreds of thousands of people with more time to spend with their families and contribute to their communities.
And it would recognize the basic reality that workers aren’t just workers.
We’re human beings. We have lives outside of work. And our time counts, too.
None of this is new. In fact, this vision is wrapped up in one of the central slogans of the original May Day movement: “8 hours for work, 8 hours for rest, 8 hours for what you will.”
Somehow we’ve let go of this concept over the past 100 years. But here in Washington, we have an incredible opportunity to restore overtime rights and once again restore the basic promise of May Day.
It’s about time.
Rachel Lauter is the executive director of Working Washington & Fair Work Center.
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