The Demise of a Work Ethic

Nobody is ever going to exploit me for money. I’m not going to work and work just to make a little more money to buy a few more things. I know, down to the core of my being, that life’s not about money.

I grew up knowing how to do without. My dad seldom worked overtime and never pressured us to make a living or achieve career success. In fact my upbringing was so family-centered, I didn’t even leave for school; I and all my siblings were homeschooled.

So it was clear in my mind when I started working at Acme, as a contract worker for a temp agency, that while I would not refuse to work over under exceptional circumstances, and would not bolt out the door the minute my shift was up, I would never become a 60-hour week worker. That’s unneccessary. That’s unhealthy. Most of the time it is even unethical.

I did work some overtime while I was a temp, and perhaps not always under “exceptional” circumstances, but I think I pretty well kept the line. Still, I had to steel my resolve when the prospect of a permanent job came up. Would it be a salaried position? I had deduced long ago that salaries were ingenious inventions, a way to give people “more” money while obliging them to do disproportinately more work. If the job I was offered were salaried, it would prepare the way for Acme to pressure me into working ten hours at work and four more at home. As I wasn’t about to allow that, potential for a showdown charged the air.

As it turned out, though, I was offered a salaried non-exempt position, which means I am guaranteed a base yearly pay but am paid at my hourly rate-and-a-half for overtime. Sweet. There is an intrinsic incentive for the employer not to ask for too much overtime, since it costs them more. And, for whatever overtime I do work, I get extra pay.

While this arrangement was a great relief to me, I realized it was still possible that my employer might demand hours of overtime despite the cost, and then I would have to spit in the face that smiled on me and gave me my first job by adamantly refusing. I didn’t look forward to it, but I know that from years of nurture I am a man of principle, and will stick to what I know is right no matter what the cost.

And it is easy to tell how much it cost me. For this current year, we take the amount I’ve earned in total (base pay + overtime) and divide it by the base pay, for a percentage of my “salary” that I have earned this yeare. (Using gross figures, but it shouldn’t matter for a ratio.) That formula tells you that, so far this year, I have earned 143% of my salary. In other words, I have come within 7% of earning my overtime rate for the year. Not last week, or the last two weeks, but the three and one-quarter months reflected in the figures used.

Hah. That showed them, those exploitative workaholic capitalists.

I can make excuses, like “I’m not doing it for the money,” which is true so far, or “I don’t have a family of my own that I am supposed to go home to,” which is true if by “family” you mean wife and children, or “That’s because things at work have been so far out of control, and now that they’ve stabilized a bit I can tone it down,” which is… high grade garden enrichment.

Ever since I got the job I have been telling my boss that I can’t keep up with all the work, and he’s offered me a variety of put-offs like “You just need to get adjusted,” “When we get a new supervisor in that department it will take a load off of you,” “We can get a high-school co-op to do some of that.” And like my rationalizations, that may prove true to an extent, with time, but it is definitely good for the flowers now.

The aforementioned new supervisor also reports to my boss, and so technically isn’t my boss, but he is “on the ground,” in the middle of the work as I experience it. That makes him the perfect boss because he can’t tell me what I have to do but he can tell me what I should do. Last week my fatigue reached the point where I almost got teary telling him how I couldn’t keep up with all my work. And he, instead of saying “I’ll do some of it,” or “I’ll make my people do it,” he said, “Then don’t.” Do your eight hours and go home, he said.

That wasn’t good enough for me. Someone needed to understand that the shipping deparment would collapse into ruin if I didn’t get reinforcements. So I went to my boss and told him all about it, again. And he said, while listening in on the conference call like I was and checking his e-mail, “I have way too many responsibilities in this job, which means I have to do a lot of things half as well as I would like.” Gosh, that sounded familiar. “I go home and wake up at 3 am and try to think of how to get it all taken care of and can’t go back to sleep, so when I come home I crash and my family life suffers.” Hm. I sleep through the night, anyway. I do notice him looking awfully sleepy during slow meetings.

To say my boss suffers from the same strains does not mean it is good or manly to be this way. I notice that many of the planners and supervisors seem to think so–that extra hours is part of the machismo of being management, and that a lack of overtime is a sign of weakness. If I were surrounded by those people, I don’t know what would become of me. Where I am, with a boss and a leading peer who both say “Do your eight hours and go home,” I might have a chance.

This last week was the end of the month, when our department works the most overtime. I worked Saturday, eight and a half. I worked more than eight hours the whole week. But I kept it within an hour of extra time, pretty good for the end of the month.

I expected things to get worse. The lesson I ought to have learned, the lesson I have been told, is that things won’t get much worse if I go home or much better if I work late; but I still expected things to get gradually worse and worse. Unfortunately on Friday I somehow caught up on the past-due work that chafed me most, so we will have to wait a little longer for the world to end.

3 responses to “The Demise of a Work Ethic”

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