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Time after Time: Mandatory Overtime in the U.S. Economy

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Publication Date: January 2002

Publisher(s): Economic Policy Institute

Author(s): Helene Jorgensen; Lonnie Golden

Topic: Labor (Labor conditions, wages, salaries, and benefits)

Type: Brief


Over the last two decades, American workers have been clocking more and more hours on the job, and they now work more hours than workers in any other industrialized country. Annual work hours are 4% higher than they were in 1980, amounting to an extra 1 hour and 30 minutes at work per week, on average (ILO 1999).

The cumulative rise in time on the job is even higher, of course, for families. In 1998 the typical middle-income, married-couple family worked six more weeks a year than did a similar family in 1989 (Mishel et al. 2001). Workers are also clocking more overtime hours. Almost one-third of the workforce regularly works more than the standard 40-hour week; one-fifth work more than 50 hours. Hourly manufacturing workers, the only group tracked by government statisticians, are putting in 25% more overtime than they were a decade ago.

In virtually every industry within the bellweather manufacturing sector, overtime had reached a record by the end of the 1990s. The growth in overtime work, while helping to drive the healthy growth in output in the U.S., has unhealthy social costs. It is taking its toll not only on workers, but on their families, communities, and, ultimately in many cases, patients, customers, and employers.

The social costs associated with the growth in work hours and persistent overtime are particularly worrisome when the long hours are involuntary. With the rise in household work hours and overtime, there is a growing need for limits on involuntary overtime. Labor laws such as the FLSA need to be amended to protect workers against excessive work hours and mandatory overtime and to protect the public from the dangers of an overburdened, stressed workforce.

Employees should have the legal right to refuse overtime after having worked a certain number of hours --without fear of job loss or other sanctions. Furthermore, an employee should be asked to work beyond some legislated upper limit only during exceptional circumstances such as a temporary health or public safety emergency. Amendment of the FLSA can preserve the right of workers to work long hours if they choose to do so, but ensure workers the right to refuse mandatory overtime.