Notes on Kamp: Theory and Practice

Labor protections are worthless if not enforced

Notes on Kamp

In theory, President Barack Obama's new overtime rule, which goes into effect Dec. 1, should be a boon to millions of workers. The law, which changes the minimum salary level at which an employee can be exempted from overtime pay requirements, means that salaried employees making between $455 a week and $913 a week will suddenly be eligible for overtime if they work more than 40 hours a week.

The law will affect lots of people whose salaries come out to less than $15 an hour when divided by 40, and would often come out to less than minimum wage if they were divided by the actual number of hours those employees work per week. The law would make it harder for employers to understaff hourly positions and expect their salaried employees to pick up the slack.

It will also, as a USA Today article put it, mean that "workers, including store managers, may have less flexibility to go the extra mile to do their jobs if their employer is intent on limiting their overtime pay. Some may be told to restrict their use of email or work-related phone calls after hours." Because we all know how much it sucks when the federal government keeps you from "going that extra mile" for your boss for zero extra money.

Of course, that's assuming the law is enforced. But it's hard to see how that's going to happen. Is it an employer's duty to make sure that nonexempt salaried employees no longer work more than 40 hours or get paid overtime if they do? Sure. But whether that will happen is less clear.

Tracking salaried employees' hours means thinking about what it means to ask employees to be available by phone or email every waking hour, or asking them to attend events outside of their usual schedules, or to come in for a few hours on their days off. It means looking at whether someone's productive enough during a "working lunch" for it to be worth it to ask them to stay at their desk instead of taking a break.

All of these things, which so many of us, myself included, take for granted as part of what it means to have a full-time job, are worth questioning. But they're also a lot to tackle, when they're so ingrained in our culture.

And when you look at the protections for workers that are law, and compare it to people's real-life experience, you see there's already a huge gap. Many workers aren't labor law experts, and even those that are aware of their rights aren't always going to feel comfortable telling their employers that they're breaking the law. Choosing between defending yourself and keeping your job is easy when you're living paycheck to paycheck – you choose your job.

As Mary Tuma's story about the city's nondiscrimination ordinance makes clear (see "Without Teeth, Are Nondiscrimination Laws Effective?" May 27), labor laws don't always come with consequences meaningful enough to do even employees who do complain much good. Laws that have good intentions behind them but little real-life effect in some ways seem worse than no law at all. People get to feel like the problem is solved, and stop worrying about it, and nothing changes.

When it comes to federal laws, even if the penalty for violations is decent, it's still a matter of having enough oversight to enforce it. And, as far as I can tell, there's never enough oversight. The starkest example for Texans is probably the high number of construction worker deaths and injuries, many of which occur because federal safety standards aren't followed on job sites.

This is where worker organization becomes essential. Unions and other groups allow workers the strength in numbers to stand up to unfair and illegal practices at work. Local groups like the Workers Defense Project fight for things like independent third-party monitoring, something that wouldn't be necessary in a perfect world, but is when the rules are so often violated. Organizations like the Equal Justice Center provide assistance to workers without the resources to hire private attorneys to sue when they find their rights violated.

But we also need to keep in mind that it's up to us, as citizens and consumers, to show that we value these protections, and not just at our own jobs. It has been, and it continues to be, deeply depressing to watch the debate about ride-hailing regulations focus so intently on background checks for drivers and not at all on any sort of protection for those workers. Nothing could have made it more clear just how vulnerable drivers were than Uber and Lyft's sudden departure. You don't get to get away with leaving your employees high and dry like that, except when you do, because you've misclassified them as independent contractors. Now, in their place, we get a nonprofit that blithely replicates that exploitative model. We fought to make sure that City Council was able to make the laws by voting down Prop 1. Now let's ask them to prove that they're worthy of that responsibility.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

overtime, President Barack Obama, Workers Defense Project, Equal Justice Center, labor protections

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