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Americans Working Longer Hours - 2003-10-08

"Eight hours for what we will!" That was the rallying cry of American workers in the 1920s, when they campaigned for a 40-hour work week.

They eventually got their wish. In 1940, the United States became one of the first countries in the world to require employers to pay their workers extra for every hour over 40 they worked each week. The result was that employers implemented a 40-hour work week. But roughly 60 years later, that 40-hour week has disappeared for many Americans. In fact, it's become so common for some people to work 50, 60, even 70 hours a week, that President George Bush wants to change the law, so that employers don't have to pay certain workers extra.

"Gary", 31, is a computer programmer from New York City. He's asked that VOA not use his real name, since he's about to discuss his employer, who requires him to work 55 to 60 hours a week.

"It effects my life, you know," he explained. "I have to do my laundry at eleven o'clock at night. I can't drop my dry cleaning off after work, because everything's closed. I can't make weekend plans, because I might have to break my plans. And it's all extremely frustrating."

And Gary's not alone. According to Peter Kuhn, a labor economist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, one-fifth of American men are working more than 50 hours a week. Most are college-educated, like Gary, holding white-collar positions. Among the top 20 percent of the wage-earning population, the number of men working 50 hours or more has doubled since the mid-1970s.

Professor Kuhn says bonus pay is part of the reason people are working longer hours. That's why the biggest increase has been among the highest-paid portion of the population. But Peter Kuhn also says many white-collar workers choose to stay at work longer than 40 hours a week, because they're afraid they'll lose their jobs if they don't.

"There's a perception of job insecurity among highly educated workers," said Mr. Kuhn. "I think there's a feeling that they need to put in those extra hours."

But Peter Kuhn says the perception of job insecurity is just that - a perception. He says the reality is that part of the reason employers expect so many hours out of their highly trained workers is that there's a shortage of skilled labor in the United States, especially in technology-driven industries. Peter Kuhn says he isn't sure what's behind this perception of job insecurity, but computer programmer Gary says he knows. According to Gary, the perception is cultivated by employers.

"I left at 6 o'clock one day, and one of the senior managers saw me walking out and said, 'Oh, it's a half-day today, huh?' At six p.m. ... It makes you feel very bad that you're leaving at a normal hour," he said.

A skilled labor shortage isn't the only reason the work week is increasing for many Americans. It's also a cost-saving measure for employers, who find it cheaper to hand out bonuses or pay overtime rates, than to hire more full-time workers, each of whom will expect a costly benefits package. If President Bush gets his way, some employers won't even have to pay overtime anymore. The White House is pushing for legislation that would exempt an estimated eight million people from overtime pay requirements set in 1940 by the Fair Labor Standards Act. The proposed legislation wouldn't effect Gary, our computer programmer. As a salaried professional, he's already excluded from federal overtime pay mandates. But Gary says money isn't why he's unhappy at work.

"I think all I need is enough money to live and to save a bit, and above and beyond that, I value my time more than the money," he explained.

To that end, Gary says he's actively looking for another job and that he plans to have a blunt conversation about overtime with any potential employer. According to UC Santa Barbara's Peter Kuhn, the frustration Gary is feeling is quite common. But Professor Kuhn also says he expects the trend toward longer work weeks to continue, at least for white-collar workers.

"I do expect to see more of this," said Mr. Kuhn. "It is, in some sense, easier to put in long hours that it used to be. We don't spend two hours preparing meals. It's easier to do work at home, via e-mail in the evenings. And the skills of highly educated Americans are going to remain in, I think, very high demand."

That's no consolation for Gary, who recently got engaged and says he now understands what workers meant in the 1920s, when they said they wanted eight hours out each day for "what we will."