Rx For Overworked Accountants During Busy Season

Tired of putting in 12-hour days, 7 days a week? Think there ought to be a law against mandatory overtime? Well, you’re not alone. The Japanese, known for long work hours, even have a word – karoshi – to describe death from overwork. Now, at last, there are products in the U.S. legislative pipeline that may actually cure this sickness without the expected side effects.

The Sickness

A study released in January 2002, by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) confirms there are a few U.S. industries (including some professional services) in which more than 25% of the employees routinely work more than 40 hours a week. The EPI finds that firms are increasing work hours, rather than increasing wages to attract new employees. The result is a practice known as mandatory, compulsory or “forced” overtime. Call it what you will, the practice is taking its toll -- not only on workers, but also on their families, communities and ultimately in many cases on clients and employers.

More hours spent at work mean less time with the family, less time to help a child with homework, and less time for play, parenting, housework and sleep. These sacrifices may appear to improve productivity, says the EPI, but there are tremendous social costs. Too much overtime can translate into increased risk for accidents and injuries, greater chronic fatigue, stress and related diseases, and lower quality goods and services. Furthermore, the EPI says, all these costs are particularly worrisome when the long hours are involuntary.

The Cure

What can be done? EPI recommends amending labor laws, such as the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), to give employees the legal right to refuse overtime after having worked a certain number of hours. An upper limit of work hours should be legislated, and employers should not be permitted to ask employees to work beyond this limit, except in exceptional circumstances such as a temporary health or public safety emergency. EPI also recommends stricter enforcement of the FLSA, including sanctions under employment discrimination law for employers who discriminate against employees for refusing to work more than the maximum number of hours per day or week. Refusal by any employee to accept such overtime work should not be grounds for employment discrimination, dismissal or discharge, or any other penalty.

Who’s listening? Congressmen are listening (see, for example the “Workplace Flexibility Act” (S.624) sponsored by Senator Judd Gregg (R-NH), and state legislators are listening. The following states are considering bills to curb mandatory overtime: California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Maine, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Washington, West Virginia and Wisconsin. Some states are starting with health care workers or hourly wage earners. But still, it’s a start.

Download a copy of EPI’s paper “Time After Time: Mandatory Overtime in the U.S. Economy.”

-Rosemary Schlank

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