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How Employees Everywhere End Up Working For Free

The Huffington Post The Huffington Post 9/10/2015 Emily Peck
ATHENA IMAGE © Gilbert Carrasquillo/Getty Images ATHENA IMAGE

Are we really so shocked that Urban Outfitters asked its salaried office workers to “volunteer” their time on a weekend unpacking boxes in a company warehouse? 

The hipster retailer’s parent company URBN -- which also owns Anthropologie and Free People -- came up for a cycle of Internet thrash-and-shame this week, after Gawker published an internal company email with the subject line “A Call for URBN Volunteers.” Salaried employees were urged to “work side by side” with paid workers in a Pennsylvania fulfillment center to pack and ship orders. “Get your co-workers together for a team building activity!” the email said. There would be free lunch.

The company defended the practice, saying workers were enthusiastic about the opportunity. “The dedication and commitment of URBN employees are second to none,” URBN said in an emailed statement to The Huffington Post.

It’s pretty hard to find any salaried worker in 2015 who isn’t “volunteering” free time to the boss in some way -- whether they're checking and responding to email at the playground while watching the kids, logging on at home on Sunday to “get ready” for the workweek, logging on after the kids go to bed to “finish up” for the day or attending awkward networking events at bars and restaurants for “fun” and “team building.” Managers pinch-hit extra hours for cashiers and waiters who call in sick. Work has crept into every corner of our lives -- who hasn’t checked their work email from the comfort of their bed?

Urban Outfitters just seems to have taken this phenomenon to its sadly logical extreme.

Now, you’ll want to say: Well, these are salaried workers. Managers! These people are supposed to put in extra hours, in exchange for higher status and the flexibility and freedom that come with it. Not to mention those big fat paychecks they collect.

And OK, yes: Consultants, investment bankers and the like put in 80-hour weeks and are arguably well-compensated for their time. Whether that's worth all the stress and the loss of time with family is another question -- as is whether a person can really be said to be "free" if they're working 80 hours a week.

The thing is, there are a lot of workers who earn “salaries” of as little as $24,000 a year. These employees are essentially volunteering their time -- beyond the standard 40 hours -- for no extra compensation.

Urban Outfitters managers pull in an average of $38,000 a year, according to data from the salary website Glassdoor.

Many, many employers are doing this thing where they'll hire people for salaried jobs with fancy titles so they can milk those employees without having to pay overtime. Workers may feel like they're advancing professionally, but on a day-to-day level, they're struggling to get by.

Under federal law, workers who don't get paid overtime -- so-called "exempt employees" -- are supposed to be executives, managers and well-compensated white-collar workers. But the definition has grown pretty broad over the decades since the law was originally drawn up.

In 1975, 62 percent of salaried, full-time workers qualified for overtime pay, including a majority of college graduates. Today, only 8 percent of workers qualify for overtime. The rest, presumably, are "volunteering" whenever their workweek spills over into their free hours.

Retail managers are particularly vulnerable to this. When companies want to avoid paying overtime to hourly workers, these managers end up doing the same kind of shift work -- but for no extra pay. Last month, a CVS night manager making $34,000 a year told The American Prospect about working extremely long hours, pitching in for hourly employees who had to be sent home because the company didn't want to pay overtime.

The definition of “manager” has grown so absurdly overinflated that the Obama administration and the U.S. Department of Labor are currently revising the rules about who gets to wear the label.

Currently, your employer doesn’t need to pay you for overtime hours if you make more than $23,660 a year -- in other words, just above the poverty line. Under the proposed new rules, which may take effect next year, the threshold would be raised to $50,400 -- the U.S. median income. If you make less than that, you would be eligible for overtime pay. As many as 5 million workers could be affected. 

In opposing the new rules, the Society for Human Resource Management is trying to argue that salaried workers lose out on prestige and flexibility when they go back on the clock.

“For a lot of people, the difference between hourly or salaried is the difference between a job and a career,” Nancy Hammer, senior government affairs policy counsel at the HR lobby group, told The Wall Street Journal recently.

That's one way to look at it. Here's another: In real life, for a lot of people, the difference between "hourly" and "salaried" is the difference between working for pay and working for free. Hourly workers get paid for their time, while salaried workers get to “volunteer” their lives to the company -- often in exchange for a “career” that pays very little.

One paralegal who spoke to the Journal admitted that it did feel like a demotion when, a decade ago, he had to start clocking in at work. But, he told reporters Rachel Emma Silverman and Rachel Feintzeig,  “it’s nice to know that if you have to stay late, you’re being paid for those hours that you’re working.”

Exactly.

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