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The Case Against Overtime

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You know what I did this past weekend?  I read a book.  It was a really interesting book that taught me some things I didn't know and got me to think about memory and forgiveness and data storage in ways I hadn't before.  I highly recommend it--not the book, not even reading, but taking time off from work to do things that enrich your life.

Like many pastors I know, I work six days a week.  Because I have a very flexible schedule, this isn't particularly burdensome.  I can make time to go to my kids' meets and to go to the food store and to volunteer at their schools during the week and still get my work done because I work on Sundays and have evening meetings at least two nights a week.  But a flexible schedule has its drawbacks.  Because I don't clock in and clock out of my job, it is easy to end up working every day of the week.

A couple of years ago, I decided to start observing the Jewish Sabbath, at least in a general way.  I stop working by sundown on Friday night and didn't do anything related to my job until Sunday morning.  I don't return emails, I don't return phone calls, I don't work on my sermon (even if it still needs work).  As a result, I have time to read books.  I also have time to hang out with my family, to go for walks in the woods, to have friends over for dinner and to do an occasional art project.

Sabbath is not really the same as "down time".  It isn't the same experience as coming home from a long day of tiresome work and collapsing on the couch with a glass of scotch.  That's time off, time when we are not thinking or engaging with other people in any meaningful way.  All of us need downtime, but in my experience, we need sabbath time even more.  

Sabbath isn't about tuning out.  It's about tuning in to a different channel.  It isn't about disengaging.  It is about engaging with something different than work.  My time off every week gives me a chance to think about other things besides my church.  It gives me a chance to talk to people who have nothing to do with my job.  It gives me time to develop interests and skills that are not, strictly speaking, part of my job.  As a result of my sabbath time, I'm a better pastor.  I'm less irritable.  I have new ideas.  I have more perspective, more patience.  I work better because I don't work all the time.

This past week, it has become increasingly clear to me that my commitment to taking ONE day off a week, as meager as that sounds, is actually pretty exceptional in our culture these days.  I don't just mean the practice--I mean the value I put on it.

First, I saw one of the most disturbing television commercials I have ever seen.  The ad for the $75,000 Cadillac ELR that aired during the Winter Olympics mocks "other countries" for not working very hard as evidenced by the fact that workers there take a full month of vacation in the summer.  It suggest that overwork is part of the American identity.  We're "crazy, driven, hard-working believers", just like the Wright brothers, Bill Gates and (strangely) Les Paul.

Then, I read about a dozen articles and op eds about increasing the minimum wage, a policy that I strongly support.  Last week, the CBO released a report saying that increasing the federal minimum wage to $10.10 per hour would cost our country about 500,000 jobs.  Then, the Washington Post ran an article this morning on the front page of the Metro section entitled, "Earners of heavy overtime growing".  The story highlighted firefighters and corrections officers in Montgomery County who earn more in overtime than they earn from their base salaries.  

When you see the amount these workers can earn through overtime, its easy to assume that these people are crazy, driven, hard-working believers too.  But then you come to this paragraph:

Montgomery officials defend the overtime outlay, saying it is a lower-cost alternative to hiring new full-time employees, with expensive benefits, to fill empty positions day to day. They estimate that it would take 140 new hires for the 1,300-member service to have personnel ready to fill all positions without overtime.

The problem with overtime is not only that it can make emergency workers less effective, the only concern raised by County officials in the article.  The problem with overtime is that it kills jobs.  This isn't just true for jobs where workers are paid overtime.  I know a number of people with salaried positions who regularly worker 50 or 60 hours a week.  If everyone in their office is working those kinds of hours, obviously the company is employing too few people.  If raising the minimum wage will decrease the number of minimum wage jobs in this country, perhaps it will also allow some people to reduce the number of hours they are working, or to drop their second job, making a space for a new worker to come on board.  

Wishful thinking?  Maybe.  But if we're serious about creating jobs in this country, it seems to me that we should start talking about overwork.  Jeff Archibald, the owner of a design firm called Paper Leaf, wrote a blog post on this topic that was re-posted by a number of friends.  It felt like a breath of fresh air:

If you’re working 60 hours a week, something has broken down organizationally. You are doing two people’s jobs. You aren’t telling your boss you’re overworked (or maybe he/she doesn’t care). You are probably a pinch point, a bottleneck....

When I work 50 or 60 hour weeks at Paper Leaf, I’m doing something wrong. It means I haven’t learned to balance my workload, or manage my time. It means I haven’t communicated to my team that I have too many things on my plate. It means we should hire someone, or at least sub something out. 

But this isn't just a problem with employers.  In a way, the Cadillac ad is right--there is an aspect of our culture which supports overwork.  We give each other license to "humblebrag" about how busy we are and how much work we have to do.  What if we expressed as much interest in our colleagues' time off as we do in their time on?  What if we talked about work a little less and talked more about the books we've read or the walks we've taken or the new people we've met?  What if we talked with our kids not only about the careers they might pursue as adults, but also the adventures they could take, the hobbies they could pursue and the people they could meet?

Comments

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John Chadwick

Very interesting blog as always. Insightful and relevant to our culture in crises. I remember while living in “old Europe” fairly recently hanging out in the Bistro in my town, where the owners of said Bistro were an Italian man and a Spanish woman. They were a couple, he cooked the food, and she served the customers. I spent a lot of quality time there, including but not limited to a glass of scotch, and while not collapsing on the couch I made myself at home. What we all had in common was speaking German. Neither spoke English, and we had a lot of fun with a group of visiting Brazilians, with our collective German, English, Italian and Spanish we could wrap our heads around the Portuguese. Portuguese is not far a filed from Spanish, and English and German are much closer than I realized once I dialed in. One of the points they made regarding the difference between Americans and Europeans, was that where as Americans live to work, Europeans work to live. And that they do not have a double standard or a double moral all too common in the home of the free, yeah right, and the brave, I better not say.
I did not want to leave San Francisco to move to Germany, but did so to try and save my marriage and be with my daughter. But even after I was divorced, and even though I gradually became reduced to an every other weekend father, I wanted to stay in Europe. In fact since returning to the United States when I first visited Kittimaqundi Community Church, then onto Las Cruces, then Long Beach California, I returned to Berlin to once again live in Germany with no plans of ever returning to the United States. Not unlike John Lennon, for me any ways the dream was over. And I was able to visit my daughter at Christmas that year, as my coworker in Berlin was also from the Stuttgart area. Now I saw my daughter on Christmas, but then she was off skiing with her mother, and shortly thereafter the police clarified that as I had been out of the country for over six months, my unrestricted rights to live in Germany had expired. I do not think it is very different for foreigners living her in the United States, but it was tough for my daughter to accept. And I found a woman who could help me extend my tourist visa, however; as all too common for me anyways, when I have over stayed my welcome I am on my way. Back to Long Beach, belly up, a glorious summer right on the beach in Venice and then Columbia Maryland all over again. I think it was Buckeroo Bonzai who said, “Where ever you go, there you are.”
I adapted to the European lifestyle, and set up a company over there so as not to run my life like the owner of a 7/11 AKA 24/7. So time off is not only good for the soul, healthy to one’s spirit, but a valuable life experience. And in a very real way my return to Germany with no plans of ever returning to the United States brought me closer to Israel. I won’t explain all the details, alas the devil is in the details. On an up note, I had a very good job interview yesterday, and am hopeful I will once again be gainfully employed. Once a have a day job the creative flood gates will open again.

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