Regulation? Great Idea. For Someone Else.
So the Obama administration is proposing to change the rules about which employees are exempt from overtime, more than doubling the salary threshold to over $50,000 a year. This is probably not going to lead to that much extra money in workers' pockets if it goes into effect. What it is going to lead to is a huge amount of compliance hassle, as employers have to start tracking the work hours of previously exempt employees.
Meanwhile, those workers can expect to find their productivity much more strictly monitored in order to force their work into the 40-hour limit. If you make $50,000 a year and you're used to being able to duck out for a coffee or make personal phone calls from work because you can always come in a few minutes early or stay a few minutes late, you should probably be prepared for the possibility that this will be curtailed.
This should become obvious to journalists as Jordan Weissman contemplates what would happen if these rules were applied to us. Even the idea of trying to measure my hourly productivity seems daft. When I get up at 7 and start reading the Web to see what's happening in the news, am I working? How about when I'm attending a lunch that might or might not produce something to write about? When I'm playing around with numbers in an Excel spreadsheet to see if there's a trend, and then after two hours it turns out that there wasn't, should my employer have to pay me for those hours?
Fortunately, my employer doesn't have to pay me for those hours; if there's nothing there, I turn to something else, and maybe I work later tonight to finish up the post I would have written earlier if I hadn't gotten that crazy idea. This works because I'm an exempt employee.
That's not the only problem with trying to put us on the clock. Some people write fast and some write slowly; some write during normal business hours and some do their best thinking at 2 in the morning. Nor do writers by and large want to be managed or paid as clock-punchers who are owed a check because they sat in a seat for a certain number of hours. We work as long as it takes, and sometimes we take coffee breaks. Which might actually count as working.
As far as I can tell, most journalists will continue to be exempt, because we're professionals. The brunt of this rule will fall on other kinds of workers. Weissman notes: "There is probably at least one aspiring restaurant manager at your local Chipotle who would be happy to pull a slightly longer shift without extra pay for the sake of a promotion. The Department of Labor's proposal will make that a lot harder to do." Nonetheless, he thinks the rule will be a net benefit, even though he goes on to explain why it would be a terrible, terrible idea for our industry.
I've seen others draw that same line on regulation time and again. It's a very human tendency, to think that everyone else needs to be regulated more tightly but you're doing just fine, thank you. I once had a nice liberal boyfriend who worked for Morgan Stanley (yes, this is a thing that exists), and he thought that everyone from airlines to drug companies needed much more government supervision to keep them from behaving so appallingly. The only industry that did not require more supervision --and indeed, was in imminent danger of being choked by government regulation that would create massive, costly and counterproductive disruptions -- was of course the finance industry. This was in 2002.
Or the doctors too many to count who have assured me that almost every facet of the health care industry required an urgent intervention to keep those wild, greedy jerks over there from getting up to no good. I hardly need to tell you that the only people in this system who did not require more bureaucratic supervision were doctors, though their goodwill often overflowed to nurses and other front-line health care workers.
The list goes on and on; in fact, I cannot recall ever speaking to anyone, in any industry, who thought that their own personal jobs would be improved with a lot of new regulations and some powerful bureaucrats to stand over them, threatening them with fines every time they stepped out of line. To the contrary, these people could wax eloquent, often very convincingly, about the ways in which new regulations would distort their business, making things worse for both them and their customers.
It's a version of Gell-Mann amnesia: What we see so clearly about the things we know, we immediately forget when we consider things at a farther distance.
I can see why overtime law is a terrible fit for my own line of work. It's harder for me to apply the same test when thinking about someone else's job. I have a vague idea of what it would be like to manage a Chipotle, in that I can probably specify the major duties involved, like ordering stuff and training workers. But I have no idea what that manager's biggest day-to-day challenge is, what it takes to do the job well, what he enjoys about his work and what he doesn't, where she's hoping to get and what she's willing to do to get there.
You know who knows that? The manager and the manager's boss: the people who are currently agreeing to the terms of employment. The administration is proposing to overrule their judgment and force overtime restrictions onto them. But if I asked that Chipotle manager whether he wants the possibility of overtime pay and the certainty of clock-punching that comes with it, he might give an answer quite a bit like my own -- all about why his job, like mine, shouldn't fall under those rigid external rules.
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