Saturday, December 10, 2016

Salaried Employment: The New Plantation

                 In late November, a U.S. district judge blocked the Department of Labor’s overtime rule that would have mandated overtime pay for more than four million people beginning December 1.
                The rule would have meant any job paying less than $47,476 per year would require that overtime be paid for those working more than 40 hours a week. The court ruling keeps that amount at $23,660, where it’s been since 2004. Pretty much anyone who makes more than $11.38 an hour can be called a salaried employee and lose control of their life.

                If Dick Phelps wasn’t the best manager I ever had, he was certainly up there. He began working for Company L at age 19 forming sheet metal. He put himself through college at night while raising a family. He was opposed to his people working overtime, and you’d better never be caught working on a holiday. Dick believed people needed time away from the office. Toward the end of his career I saw upper management harassing him for being too old and too lenient. Eventually he threw in the towel and retired in 1992.
                One of the upper management guys had a cadre of young up-and-coming men. They were all men. They were all thin. And most of them were blond. Once, after a company picnic, a friend of mine remarked, “There’s not an ugly one in the group.”
                We got one of the cadre as a replacement for Dick. This guy had never worked in our field, and I don’t think he planned to be in that field for long, so why learn it? At any rate, he began making our lives miserable. He bullied my supervisor so frequently and viciously that my supervisor retired and was replaced with an incompetent doofus. He inserted himself into my relationships with subcontractors and was generally a nasty piece of work.
                About this same time, Company L adopted the no overtime pay policy. One upper management guy explained it this way: If I hire someone to do a job, and that job takes twelve hours to do, why should I pay overtime? I’ve hired the guy to do the job, no matter how long it takes.
                How many salaried employees were hired to do just one specific job? And we all know people who are excellent managers of their time and can do a job quickly. What if these folks do their job in four hours? Do they get to call it a day? Face time became a biggie at Company L. I had started Living Cheap Press and was doing my newsletter, Living Cheap News, so I didn’t have a bunch of time to spare, much less play the face time game. But what did amaze me was I saw people coming in when I did and leaving when I did, and these people claimed to be working twelve-hour days. I don’t know if they were counting their commute, but even if they were, there is no way they worked twelve hour days. To make matters worse, many of the people who claimed to be working these long hours could be seen spending a good deal of their time shooting the breeze with others who also claimed to be working long hours while they were at work. I very seriously doubt they were actually working eight hours a day, let alone twelve.
                The face time cult grew, not only at Company L but at our subcontractors. One told me their people were contributing free hours and the company should be paid for these hours because Company L was getting the benefit of the free hours. I considered their request for about thirty seconds and said, pay your people, and we’ll pay you. In fact, it would have been illegal to pay for costs they didn’t incur. I never heard back from them.

The face time cult soon became the dominant force at Company L. I heard one person say, “If you can get your job done in eight hours a day, you don’t have enough work.” I thought that was a bizarre attitude. But it got worse.
If we had business that required travel, we were expected to do that on our own time, since Company L was “not going to pay people to sit on a plane.” Once I caught an early flight home after finishing an assignment. One of our vice presidents was on the same flight—in first class. He asked why I was flying on company time. I told him I’d finished early and didn’t see any reason not to come home. He didn’t make a big deal about it—after all, he was on the same flight on company time, and he was in first class on the company dime.
                In 1993, the year after Dick retired, Company L had a massive layoff. I’ll discuss this more in the next post, but the result was a lot of talent was lost, no one was replaced, and a lot of work was spread around to a diminishing number of staff. I couldn’t talk Company L into laying me off, so I decided to lay them off. The final straw came when I got an “exceeds expectations” rating for my work but a below average raise “because I was already making so much.”
When I was preparing to leave Company L and move back to Kansas City all sorts of people were asking how I could leave the fabulous Bay Area for the Midwest. I simply pointed out that, as beautiful as Northern California is, I never had time to enjoy it.
I recently heard a comic say we work so we can pay for a car to drive to work, clothes to wear to work, and a place to leave empty while we’re at work. In short, he concluded, we work so we can afford to work. Maybe we should examine our lives if we’re stuck in a situation in which we live to work. If we keep putting our lives on hold, we may well wind up running out of time before we have a life.  
After I moved back here in 1995 I finished Beating the System, which remains my favorite of the books I’ve written, and I got a contract to do The Best of Living Cheap News. In 1997 I started a contract job with a local engineering firm that has since been swallowed up by a big firm. That lasted four years and was great. I was paid for every hour I worked—even those I spent on the highway. I was a contractor, and I didn’t have to deal with office politics. Once the company needed someone for a job in California. They asked me if I’d be interested in moving back there. I told them no. They told me to pack my bags and get out there. I said, “You do realize I’m not an employee, don’t you?” They’d forgotten.
That contract ended in 2001. After it ended I was interviewed by a company in Wichita that had underbid a contract and told me I’d be expected to work twelve hour days seven days a week and a company in Independence, Missouri that had ten-hour days and, even though their official workweek was four days, employees were “expected” to work five days. I was happy to say no to both of those generous offers.
I’d forgotten about the face time and free hours until Dan was affected. The last few years has reminded me what salaried employment is like and why I’m so glad it was possible for me to become financially able to decide how and where I’d live and what I’d do with my life.
I’m not shilling Beating the System. I finished it in 1995, and an awful lot has changed since then, but it does give you one blueprint to financial freedom, and financial freedom may be just become more possible with the higher interest rates that seem to be coming soon.
And coming soon, another reason you should plan on early retirement.

In memory of Dick Phelps (1931-2013)

© 2016 Larry Roth

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