Workdays expand, but what about salaries?


Fair Exchange

When employees paid an hourly wage realize the boss is short-changing their paycheck, they have every right and the resources to get it resolved under state and federal rules that protect them.

But what can a salaried employee do who has an ever-expanding workday and a paycheck that is unaffected by the number of hours worked?

People paid a salary are expected to deliver a work product or service and the number of hours involved doesn’t matter. But the Yahoo! telecommuting hullabaloo has brought to the surface the frustrations many salaried employees feel about the flexible workplace.

With a cellphone and a laptop, you can be productive and do great work just about anywhere, anytime — and that’s the problem. The workplace has no walls and the workday has no end.

Technology has facilitated the problem, but ultimately it is the people — the boss and employee — who have to set reasonable standards for when and where work is done and how much time the employee should expect to devote to work outside of normal hours. It’s not a negotiation between equals; the boss has the upper hand in this labor market. If the boss is disorganized, likes to work late or lacks patience, the employee can expect to get calls at night.

But how many calls per week is reasonable? Should the boss be willing to think through his work for the day and resolve open questions before people leave for home?

How should the boss react if an employee refused to be available by phone or didn’t want to check email in the evening? Is it wrong for an employee to expect a work-free block of time in the evening?

Thousands of wage and hour lawsuits are working their way through the courts right now. The most recently publicized, Allen v. City of Chicago, involves Chicago police Sgt. Jeffrey Allen responding to emails or phone calls off hours.

If the email and calls had been infrequent my bet is that Allen wouldn’t have noticed or the boss would have paid the overtime due. Either way the hard feelings and costs that come with a lawsuit would have been avoided.

But Allen, whose lawsuit was filed on behalf of himself and other sergeants, has shown that he was receiving calls and emails nightly and he had to respond.

He may prevail and receive the overtime he is due, but that won’t restore his lost personal time.

The frustration felt by many salaried and hourly wage employees stems from the feeling that they can’t relax and enjoy an uninterrupted personal life. Work demands don’t wait for the start of the next day.

The wage and hour lawsuits and complaints are as likely to come from those earning in excess of $60,000 a year as they are from those earning a low wage.

Overtime pay was designed to make the boss think twice about asking employees to work long hours by imposing a cost — time-and-a-half pay.

But there is no additional cost to the employer if salaried employees work 50 or 60 hours in a week.

Of course there is another side to this issue. The boss may see a phone call and a quick question as fair exchange for an employee’s work time spent on the phone with a spouse or child, or the use of office equipment to produce the family reunion invitations or the time spent online just goofing off .

The boss could insist that personal calls and activities during work hours be limited, and in exchange commit to better planning and work organizing to limit the work that intrudes on personal time.

Email cc’s could be cut down, the need for many meetings could be challenged and some weekly or monthly reports could end and no one would know the difference. Today’s technology can create tremendous increases in productivity or tremendous increases in ways to waste time, it is up to us.

The biggest mistake most employers make with wage and hour law is misclassifying a job as salaried to avoid paying overtime. A job should be classified as salaried (exempt from overtime regulations) based on the responsibilities and qualifications described in the job description. Job title doesn’t matter; you can call someone the vice president of customer service, but if he is answering customer questions all day, he should be paid hourly (non-exempt from overtime regulations.)

The Fair Labor Standards Act, created in 1938, provides detailed and complex criteria for classifying a job as salaried or hourly (exempt or nonexempt) and regulates how overtime pay is administered. The criteria is available online at the Department of Labor’s website, .

The regulations haven’t changed much in 75 years; the workplace is different, but people are about the same as ever. Employees want to know that they are getting a fair wage for a fair day’s work.

We just need to agree on what that workday looks like.

Virginia Detweiler, based in Walla Walla, provides human resource services and management training to businesses in southeastern Washington with her consulting firm HR Partner on Call. Her columns are written as a service to employers and employees and rely on reader questions and comments for topical material. Contact her by email at or phone at 509-529-1910. Because of job and employer sensitivities, care is taken to protect identities.


Virginia Detweiler will teach two workshops on understanding overtime rules. The first will be 5-9 p.m. Wednesday at Walla Walla’s Best Western Suites Inn, 7 E. Oak St., and and 8 a.m.-noon Thursday. Each is $79. For details, go to or call 509-529-1910.


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