Copyright © 1999, Ethan A. Winning, All Rights Reserved
At least twenty percent of the e-mailed questions I receive from employees have to do with the maximum number of hours that an employee can be made to work in a workweek, the number of hours of overtime that the employee can be made to work, or the number of consecutive days that an employee can be made to work. The answers don't vary: barring a union contract or regulations concerning minors and very specific jobs (e.g., pilot, truck driver, railroad engineer, miner), there are no state laws which restrict the number of regular or overtime hours that an individual can be made to work in a workweek. (The one and only exception is California where the max hours are 72.)
In essence, I've responded by saying that the employee is "at the mercy and common sense of the employer." One has got to wonder, however, how corporate philosophy, economic conditions, or the composition of the labor force has affected the way in which companies do require so much overtime. It wasn't more than a decade ago that there was a rule of thumb which said that, when the amount of overtime being worked was equivalent to, say, 30 hours a week for a small work group, it was time to hire another employee.
Yes, there are industries where the demand for employees far outstrips the supply of those with the requisite skills. And although I have no figures to back this up, it is my contention that we are also losing a supply of employees skilled in "the trades" for lack of better terminology. We may well be at a (or another) turning point in our education and training systems. Just this past week, one state passed a law which would do away with all "shop" classes. Many years ago, there was a move toward technical high schools and colleges, but that has died away, and now we're in this fix. One thing is certain: we can't all be what Drucker termed, "knowledge workers."
After downsizing - which continues unabated - we are left with a labor force that must work longer hours to do the work of whatever percentage of the workforce was let go. Logically, one would think that the cost of overtime would be almost as great as the wages of the terminated employees. Not so. Perhaps as much as half of the employees e-mailing regarding the forced long hours and "overtime" are exempt. Some are individuals in very technical fields who have become managers; others are professionally exempt under the Fair Labor Standards Act. Further, the cost of overtime is offset by considerably lower benefits costs from insurance premiums to time off for holidays, vacations, and sick leave. Even workers' comp premiums would be lower.
These are impersonal factors. The larger problem is that of the personal costs. Had this scenario occurred 30 years ago, there would definitely have been a move toward unionization of a particular company. Now, with a fairly open labor market, the cost may well be one of turnover, and turnover is very expensive. No nonexempt employee is complaining about the money that is earned through overtime, but they do question the quality of life issues that have ensued. And managers and other exempt employees complain about both the money and the quality of life.
One has also got to wonder how productive the employee can be after an eight or ten-hour day or five-day workweek. In 1991, a client asked me to conduct a study on the effects of work hours on productivity and errors. Since this was a service organization, I did not consider how or if the number of injuries would rise after an eight or ten-hour day, but I'm fairly certain that studies have been done which show a marked increase in workers' comp claims the longer an employee much be on the job.
My findings were quite simply that mistakes and errors rose by about 10% after an eight-hour day and 28% after a 10-hour day. (The most noticeable errors were made in an accounting department, and caught rather quickly.) I also found that productivity decreased by half after the eighth hour of work. In other words, half of all overtime costs were wasted since it was taking twice as long to complete projects. After the study was done, a concerted effort was made to increase staffing.
Perhaps more important, the company also re-instituted its in-house training program(s) in several areas, and it spent considerably more on outside one- and two-day seminars as well as on tuition reimbursement programs.
I have no simple answers to the problem, but I have some suggestions:
- Determine the actual costs of overtime and turnover for the company.
- Determine how much of the turnover is rooted in the workload.
- Determine what skills are present and what skills are needed to accomplish the tasks.
- Institute in-house skills training, management development training, and time management training. (All the PDA's and Palm Pilots in the world don't get the work done.)
- You probably don't need a training department. Try using skilled employees to teach those who need those skills. Call it "mentoring" if you want: nomenclature doesn't matter.
- When you send someone to an outside seminar, have them report all that they have learned when they get back. In fact, have them teach anything new to the other managers and employees who can use this newfound knowledge.
- Determine how many employees it actually takes "to screw in a light bulb" I am not suggesting that you go back to time and motion studies, but somewhere there must be historical records as to how long tasks or projects take and how many people it takes to do them. If no such data is available, then use the old logic: we know that it takes more than one and less than 10 people to do "x." Okay, does it take more than two and less than 9? Keep narrowing it down...
- Get away from the mind set that all employees want money more than a rational, reasonably operated workplace.
Even this may be too simplistic, but the alternative of losing employees to employers who have come up with solutions is unacceptable. As for what you do about overtime in the meantime, set some maximum number of hours per week, alternate those who work overtime from week to week, and maybe even hire a few of those people who were just downsized by your next door corporate neighbor.