The Restless Project: An Employer Can Force You to Stay at Work Without Pay

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If you thought more hours with less pay is bad, what about more hours with no pay? Here’s another Image Not Availablereason you probably feel restless at night, a phenomenon I’m exploring in The Restless Project.

In case you had any doubt about how hostile America is to workers right now, the U.S. Supreme Court has cleared that up. Unanimously.

In a twisted ruling that only a corporation could love, the court this week ruled that Amazon (via its contractor) does not have to pay warehouse workers for the time they spend standing in line after work, waiting for a humiliating exam to see if they’ve stolen anything that day.

The Surpremes’ logic was based on the legal-heavy, common-sense-light notion that the screenings are not considered an essential part of the workers’ jobs. That sets it apart from, for example, detox showers taken by chemical plant workers after a shift.

The ruling ignores the most basic tenet of work: Workers should be paid for the time they are required to spend at work. If the time isn’t yours, it’s theirs. And you need to be paid for that. The ruling was UNANIMOUS in favor of saying it’s OK to require workers to spend time at work without pay. (Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan wrote a concurring opinion that hints they see limitations to the ruling. Still, they concurred.)

You should be scared about this ruling. Why?

“By not requiring pay for Amazon security wait, will [the Supreme Court] spur employers to brainstorm new ways not to pay wages?” New York Times labor reporter Steven Greenhouse tweeted.

Your boss now has permission to dream up tasks that would appear to a court to be nonessential to your job, and not pay you for them.

No overtime for many

Of course, if you are a salaried employee, you are probably used to that treatment. In one of the most sensible discussions about America’s disappearing middle class I have read recently, Seattle entrepreneur (and Amazon investor) Nick Hanauer explains that the end of overtime pay is the real reason Americans are both chronically overworked and underpaid. He said:

In 1975, more than 65 percent of salaried American workers earned time-and-a-half pay for every hour worked over 40 hours a week. Not because capitalists back then were more generous, but because it was the law. It still is the law, except that the value of the threshold for overtime pay — the salary level at which employers are required to pay overtime — has been allowed to erode to less than the poverty line for a family of four today. Only workers earning an annual income of under $23,660 qualify for mandatory overtime. You know many people like that? Probably not. By 2013, just 11 percent of salaried workers qualified for overtime pay, according to a report published by the Economic Policy Institute.

Merely restoring overtime rules to their old standards would instantly lift millions of American families out of Restlessness. It would lead to hiring new workers rather than piling more work onto the old ones. It would also force American corporations to hire better managers.

I’ve long argued that overtime and weekend work is often the result of poor planning and poor labor deployment. It’s a lot easier to give someone a big project on Friday at 4 p.m. when there’s no economic consequences. Add overtime costs, and you’ll see how much more “considerate” and organized management becomes.

But the notion of enforcing 40-hour-workweek rules, established as humane more than 100 years ago, sounds Utopian today, doesn’t it? Particularly in a place where it’s OK for a company to own workers’ time without paying them. Even while Germans are now enjoying the potential of legal protection against after-hours email. You should be very, very worried.

More from Bob Sullivan:

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