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Overtime, Productivity, and the 40-Hour Work Week

FLSA, Illinois Employment Lawyer, Employee RightsWhen most people think about the requirements of a full-time job, they typically envision the average eight hour day and a resulting 40-hour week. Recent economic trends, however, are quickly proving that image to be no longer true. In fact, a recent Gallup study suggests that half of all full-time workers in the United States work more than 40 hours per week, and almost 40 percent work 50 hours or more. While expectations for longer work days and weeks are becoming increasingly common in many jobs, there are indications that putting in all the overtime may not actually be worth it.

In 1926, Henry Ford was the first prominent American business owner to experiment with a new expectation for his employees. After years of research within his company and against the recommendations of his contemporaries, Ford made the drastic decision to increase his workers’ wages while reducing the length of a standard work day to eight hours. The years that followed for the Ford Motor Company were among the most successful of any company in the country’s history, and unsurprisingly, other business owners took notice, making similar changes within their own organizations.

By 1938, the first version of the Fair Labor Standards Act had been established, which included regulations regarding overtime and a 40-hour standard work week. Drawing lavish praise from President Franklin Roosevelt, the FLSA was welcomed by many as a necessary step in economic recovery following the Great Depression. The law was only applicable to about 20 percent of the nation’s work force, as it primarily addressed industrial related employment but it laid the groundwork for future labor laws and regulations designed to protect many more workers.

While the FLSA, in subsequent forms, has permitted unlimited paid overtime in most cases, as well as exemptions to paid overtime requirements, research has been mounting over the years that calls into the question the efficiency of longer hours. Repeated studies suggest that most workers can maintain high productivity for about eight hours per day, and increasing the hours worked did not result in an equivalent increase in output. There have been some findings, including a 1980 report by The Business Roundtable, which showed that brief stints of overtime to meet specific goals could produce short-term benefits, but only in specific situations and the increased productivity was not sustainable.

Despite the existing research, there has not been a widespread push back toward a 40-hour work week. Changing the mindset of workers and employers which has been established over several generations is a significant challenge. Employees would likely welcome shorter days and weeks but convincing business owners that less hours per week could increase overall efficiency is not going to happen quickly.

The increase of telecommuting and tech-related jobs has also added a level of flexibility to the modern work environment. For many, going to work no longer requires a daily commute or punching a clock. Known for providing stellar working conditions and unusual employee perks, Google co-founder and CEO Larry Page observed, “Most people like working, but they’d also like to have more time with their family or to pursue their own interests.”

If you are a business owner, understanding how overtime and long hours affect your employees’ efficiency is extremely important. Equally important is ensuring your expectations and compensation scale meet the requirements of the law. A qualified lawyer can help provide the answers you need regarding the Fair Labor Standards Act and other applicable labor statutes. Contact an experienced Illinois employment attorney at the Miller Law Firm, P.C. for a consultation today.

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