50 hour work weeks may be "standard", but are they legal?
November 21, 2010 1:25 PM   Subscribe

Taking What They're Giving filter: What's the legality around the statement "A 50-hour work week is pretty much expected here."

This isn't a hill I want to die on at this time, but I'm curious about something. This last week at work (IT company in the Midwest), I got into a bit of a power struggle with a fellow associate. It was pretty petty, but it ended in an odd way. A meeting occurred where my request for assistance was debated and my average hours worked over the past three to four weeks was used as a data point against me as I was "only averaging 44-48 hours".

Normally, I don't mind putting in the hours and, in my defense (although having to defend a 44-48 hour workweek average seems...odd), I had a relative undergo two outpatient surgeries and a death in the family over the same time period, so my mind was on different things.

In short, my request for assistance on a project was denied and this was the rationale given. Specifically, I was told that "50 hours was a pretty standard work week here," and resources couldn't be allocated to take over the project from my (imo) overloaded plate as I should just "work harder".

In the past I've worked that much voluntarily to get the job done and have had stellar reviews and never any previous issue with my weekly hours worked (in fact, I've gotten compliments regarding my willingness to work extra and lend a hand when needed even though it wasn't my responsibility to do so).

But this just feels wrong...if not illegal, definitely not as clear cut a power move as it was portrayed to me as. Mind you, I think part of it was just a gentle warning that not only was this data point out there, but that pressing the issue might be used against me in my application for an upcoming leadership training program I'm really keen to get into. Plus, this was disclosed to me by my boss whom I like and who likes me, so the power move came from a third party whom no one likes, so I don't really want this to lead to friction in the good relationship just to snap at the bad one.

I was furious at the time, but have since mellowed and am just more interested in knowing if any laws were outright violated and/or if there is ammo there for me to use should I be unwise and decide to press the issue.

Incidentally, I worked 53 hours last week and will work at least 50 this week with the holiday, so the average is going back up anyway.
posted by quakerjono to Law & Government (25 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I'm pretty sure that if 50-hour work weeks were illegal, associates at BigLaw firms would be suing their way to those hefty pay checks instead of working their ass off for 100 hours in billables a week.
posted by DarlingBri at 1:28 PM on November 21, 2010 [3 favorites]

It's perfectly legal. However, if you are working for a wage, then they must pay you overtime. If you are salaried you're SOL.
posted by griphus at 1:29 PM on November 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

Mostly legal (though if you are non-exempt you get OT, and possible for persons with disabilities or persons covered by FMLA to work fewer hours under some circumstances). But IMO not family-friendly, disability-friendly, or human-friendly. I would file the experience away in your mental archives, and be on the lookout for other opportunities with other companies when they arise.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 1:33 PM on November 21, 2010 [4 favorites]

Unless there is some 'upside' for working more than 40 hrs a week, its a bogus demand.
posted by cowmix at 1:37 PM on November 21, 2010

Assuming you're in the U.S., no it's not illegal. Even if your job is exempt, it's not illegal - they'd just be required to pay you overtime. If you're governed by a union, different rules may apply, depending on the contract.
posted by rtha at 1:38 PM on November 21, 2010

Just to further what ClaudiaCenter stated, the "exempt" or "non-exempt" determines whether the overtime provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act apply to you. "Exempt" means they do not, and you are not legally obligated overtime when working over 40 hours/week.
posted by griphus at 1:38 PM on November 21, 2010 [3 favorites]

You don't have to work 50-hour weeks, and they don't have to employ you.
posted by foursentences at 1:46 PM on November 21, 2010 [5 favorites]

It's not illegal but it sounds like there might be some underlying issues between you and your coworkers.

For what it's worth, I've heard that at companies before but an ongoing requirement like that seems like a sign of a poorly managed team in constant crisis mode.

Then again, I'm driving a Toyota and not an awesomemobile and maybe those driving awesomemobilies take that sort of thing more cheerfully.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 1:51 PM on November 21, 2010 [2 favorites]

Talk with these folks if you have questions about your employer's wage and hours of work policies.

If you are currently classified as exempt, you work in an industry which has been known for pushing too many of their employees into that category. Take a look at this list and see if you think you're exempt. If you think you aren't, you can start talking about laws. But just the ones that say they have to pay you for every hour you work.
posted by SMPA at 1:54 PM on November 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

Oh, and please find out if you're an at-will employee before you start rocking the boat w/r/t legality and so forth. At-will employees may be fired with no warning and with no declared reason.
posted by griphus at 1:56 PM on November 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

in my last contract it said the average and expected work week was 39.5 hours but that we would on occasion be required to go the extra mile. that ended up meaning that I logged 70, 75, 80 hour weeks pretty much all the time. I got called in on weekends, woken up at night, asked to return from my vacation early (on my own dime, mind you) and let's not even get into all those missed lunches. but they made damn sure the time management system only allowed me to enter 74 hours for each week. I never once got overtime or even just a bit extra.

what I'm trying to tell you is that yes, this person you had your struggle with is an ass but you're in a fairly decent situation to others out there. I'd just chalk it up as unfortunate. the boss you are on good terms on the other hand should get to know about it.
posted by krautland at 2:11 PM on November 21, 2010

Thanks for the replies! Yeah, I'm not going to do anything about it as I need my job and know damn good and well that, all things considered, I have it pretty good. I was just a bit taken aback by it in terms of client project satisfaction vs. a power move.
posted by quakerjono at 2:20 PM on November 21, 2010

That sounds like a dick move, but it doesn't sound like they're doing anything unlawful.
posted by J. Wilson at 2:34 PM on November 21, 2010

Just curious... were you told about this expectation before? If you weren't told, how were you supposed to know?
posted by rabbitrabbit at 3:15 PM on November 21, 2010

If you feel you have gotten the answer you are looking for, congratulations.

Otherwise, please feel free to memail me. I would need to ask you some specific questions, before giving a legit assessment.

I'm a labor organizer, and a lot of the information presented here as fact is bullshit, guesses, and opinions. That ain't helping anyone.
posted by hal_c_on at 3:52 PM on November 21, 2010 [2 favorites]

So, are you an hourly employee or salaried?
posted by tristeza at 5:36 PM on November 21, 2010

I'm an employment defense attorney (which means I defend companies against lawsuits based on things like failure to pay overtime wages) and I agree with hal_c_on. Whether this is legal depends on a myriad of factors which no one here has any information about. (This is not to say that all of the answers above aren't legitimate, just that this is a complicated area of law in which there are very few black and white distinctions.)
posted by wuzandfuzz at 6:01 PM on November 21, 2010

Agree with hal_c_on. You've gotten a lot of wrong information here. For example, rtha is quite wrong in stating that exempt employees are owed overtime pay; in fact, the opposite is true.

Tristeza's question regarding whether you're hourly or salaried is entirely moot. All that matters is whether or not you're exempt or non-exempt. Exempt employees (who are not entitled to overtime pay, as we've established) can be paid on an hourly or salary basis.

Also, every state but Montana is an at-will state. Unless you've got a contract or a union, or you're working in Montana, it's probably safe to assume you're an at-will employee.

All this is just to say that there are many, many misconceptions and misunderstandings surrounding the world of labor law. At face value, given the very limited information you've provided, there's nothing about this that seems illegal. As wuzandfuzz says, though, it's impossible for us to give you an accurate answer without (much) more information. If it's a huge concern, consult an attorney. Otherwise, I agree with the decision to avoid rocking the boat on this one.
posted by pecanpies at 6:10 PM on November 21, 2010

(Also, apologies to rtha and tristeza for the call-outs - I just wanted to address the misinformation. Nothing personal.)
posted by pecanpies at 6:12 PM on November 21, 2010

For example, rtha is quite wrong

Yeah, I mistyped, failed to proof, and realized about ten minutes later that I'd flubbed it. Oh, for an edit window.My apologies.
posted by rtha at 6:13 PM on November 21, 2010

(Also, apologies to rtha and tristeza for the call-outs - I just wanted to address the misinformation. Nothing personal.)

No worries, I appreciate learning when I'm wrong!
posted by tristeza at 6:22 PM on November 21, 2010

Doubling up: the difference is whether you are exempt [from overtime pay requirements] or not. It is not up to the employer as to what class you fall into, but what your job duties entail.

There may be specific state laws that have even greater requirements as to time spent working and schedules versus expectations. Concepts like one day off for 7 and 8 hour rest periods.

But I don't know if that's the question. Assuming they are paying you what they are legally required to, no, that statement doesn't obviously violate any laws. It would start to get tricky if that statement went against some other agreement or policy. Like, for example, you scheduled a doctor appointment and got clearance to leave at 3pm. Then they say you can't leave or you'll be fired. That approaches illegality.

In the context of this meeting/argument, you definitely need to seek out a policy maker in the organization to clarify their rules and expectations. Annoyed coworkers or department managers usually don't get to make those kinds of rules. If it is a more casual organization, then it is high-time the organization spells out what the deal is. Even (especially?) if you don't have a written contract, you need something spelled out that states what the expectations are, and what the consequences are for failing to meet same. And those consequences need to be reasonable.

But many employers don't like spelling those things out, because that would mean that they have to follow their own rules.

It really sounds like you are getting slightly bullied- if your work is so important that you have to work excess hours, it would also probably be important enough (to someone) that you get assistance on the project. What client wants to hear that their product can't get delivered because Jenkins wouldn't help Johnson with his project? None, and I suspect the higher-ups in the org wouldn't like it either.

As for at-will: even if you aren't in Montana, stand up for yourself, if that's what you believe you should do. If you signed up for what you thought was a 40 hour a week job and they are making demands that you find unreasonable, tell them. And then they will tell you what they will do if you insist. And at-will isn't a bad thing- just as you are free to walk away, they should be as well. At-will, as a concept, doesn't affect things like unemployment benefits. Those generally depend on WHY you were terminated.
posted by gjc at 8:02 PM on November 21, 2010

Could be worse. It could still be the heady days of the dotcom bubble. My advice is to remain furious until you burn out and take an IT job in academia -- the pay might not be quite as good, but the benefits are great and the hours are sane. It's worked for me, anyway.
posted by hades at 10:21 PM on November 21, 2010

pecanpie: "Tristeza's question regarding whether you're hourly or salaried is entirely moot. All that matters is whether or not you're exempt or non-exempt. Exempt employees (who are not entitled to overtime pay, as we've established) can be paid on an hourly or salary basis."

Actually, that's entirely wrong. To be exempt, an employee must be salaried and his duties must meet certain requirements, unless his duties bring him under the computing professional exemption (which usually doesn't apply to employees to whom people typically think it applies).

If you really give a shit, get a lawyer. Likely, though, you've not been confronted with an illegal request or expectation.
posted by yurodivy at 8:34 AM on November 24, 2010


No, it's not wrong. I really wish people wouldn't comment on these topics without a solid knowledge of the issues involved. Certain computer staff are exempt and can be paid hourly. Farmworkers are exempt and can be paid hourly. Etc. Exempt does not mean salaried. This link from the DOL may provide more guidance.

Anyways, none of this is really pertinent to the OP's question. If the OP is exempt per the executive, administrative, or professional exemption, which is what I'm assuming, then yes, he must be paid on a salary basis. That the OP is (presumably) exempt and is paid on a salary basis does not in any way mean that all exempt employees must be paid on a salary basis.

I'd rather not continue to derail the OP's thread, so feel free to MeMail me if you want to discuss this further, yurodivy.
posted by pecanpies at 7:41 AM on November 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

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