Grappling with issue of overworked Americans

Overtime hours, length of workweek disputed by labor, government

White-collars caught in between

September 17, 2000|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

In his last two and a half days of life, Brent Churchill slept a total of five hours. The rest of the time he was working.

In his last moments, Churchill, a lineman on call one stormy weekend for Central Maine Power, climbed a 30-foot pole, hooked on his safety straps and reached for a 7,200-volt cable without first putting on his insulating gloves. There was a flash, and then Churchill hung motionless by his straps. His father, arriving before the ladder-truck did and thinking his son might still be alive, stood at the foot of the pole for more than an hour begging for somebody to bring his boy down.

The death of a 30-year-old lineman from remote Industry, Maine, might have gone unnoticed but for a coincidence: Churchill happened to die at a time of heightened public concern about the expanding workweek - a time, in fact, when the Maine Legislature had been debating whether to cap the amount of mandatory overtime allowed in the state.

The bill was not exactly a clarion call for worker ease, placing the overtime limit at 96 hours within any three-week period. The governor had vetoed two versions, and there had not been enough votes in the Senate to override him.

But the outcry over Churchill's death lent new momentum to efforts to cap overtime. The lawmakers compromised on a cap of 80 hours in any two-week period, and in May, Maine became the first state in the nation to limit the number of hours an employee can be required to work.

But it is not the first to recognize the problem of physical exhaustion on the job in the tightest labor market in almost half a century. Although Maine faced an especially stark catalyst in Churchill's case, elsewhere around the nation, in courthouses and state legislatures, on picket lines and at negotiating tables, a backlash is building against the new economy's voracious appetite for Americans' time.

West Virginia and Pennsylvania recently debated but deferred action on bills that would allow workers to refuse overtime without being punished. Washington state lawmakers considered a Maine-style overtime cap earlier this year but it died in committee.

New Jersey legislators had greater success with a narrower bill, voting in June to ban mandatory overtime in hospitals; the bill now awaits Gov. Christine Todd Whitman's signature.

California started counting overtime after an eight-hour day, rather than a 40-hour week, though lawmakers there are now being bombarded with calls to exempt ski lodges, racehorse stables, hospitals, construction sites and many other workplaces.

Lack of consensus

The expanding workweek has become a flashpoint for some unions, though not all. Studies show that most employees who qualify for overtime premiums still want the extra hours. This lack of consensus on whether the workweek is too long or too short is one reason most state efforts to cap overtime have faltered.

The labor groups now taking a stand on the workweek tend to be those representing either workers with safety issues, like pilots and firefighters, or large numbers of women, who often feel the work-time pinch more acutely.

A strike by telephone workers against Verizon this summer was motivated in large part by overtime issues; women in the company's calling centers complained that they could not break free from work early enough to pick up their children or make dinner for their families.

Firefighters in Connecticut recently challenged the constitutionality of mandatory overtime, arguing unsuccessfully that it violated the 13th Amendment ban on slavery. Nurses in several New York hospitals now sign protest statements when they start their shifts, creating a paper trail of their mandatory workloads.

Congress has also been grappling with the issue of the expanding workweek, though much of its effort is aimed not at workers but at helping employers who seek to reduce the associated labor costs. Several attachments to the pending minimum-wage legislation would disqualify technology workers, sales personnel and others from receiving overtime pay. Another provision would allow businesses to reduce overtime payments to almost all qualifying employees.

Labor's fight for relief from onerous working hours dates back more than a century - and its victories have been hard won. From 1886, when a potent eight-hour movement exploded in street violence in the Chicago Haymarket, it took 52 years for American society to agree on a 40-hour workweek with the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938.

"Overwork has been an issue for quite a while," said Peter Rachleff, a history professor at Macalester College in St. Paul. "But whether workers have felt it was an issue they could address or not has changed in the last year."

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