No overtime for mouse martyrs

For many of the 8,000 or so temporary workers employed by Microsoft and Boeing, 1998 is already turning out to be a crappy year.

4 min read
For many of the 8,000 or so temporary workers employed by Microsoft and Boeing, 1998 is already turning out to be a crappy year.

Under a new rule that went into effect January 1, computer programmers, systems analysts, and other hourly paid computer workers who possess a "high degree of theoretical knowledge" are no longer eligible for mandatory overtime pay in Washington state, where both firms are based.

Supporters of the move claim that they can't afford to pay time-and-a-half to programmers who make as much as $48 per hour, but that excuse rings hollow. Between 1980 and 1995, corporate profits and revenues rose more than 127 percent. In the same years, executive compensation skyrocketed an astounding 182 percent with some top dogs receiving as much as 1,800 percent of the compensation of their lowest-paid workers. At a time when companies are generating record profits, cutting the pay of the hourly and temporary workers who've helped raise those earnings is the worst kind of avarice.

State officials emphasize that the unilateral ruling is aimed only at "highly paid" and "highly skilled" workers making more than $27.63 per hour. That may sound like a lot to someone working the counter at McDonald's, but to hourly computer workers, many of whom are temporary, the time-and-a-half pay was just compensation for working long hours without the benefit of job security, vacations, sick leave, insurance, education benefits, or stock options. "My one, single, only protection against abuse, exploitation, and professional burnout is overtime [pay]," Boeing and Microsoft contractor Jeffrey Munch complained to the Washington state department responsible for the ruling.

These aren't the elite code warriors that swell the ranks of Microsoft millionaires, but the information technology foot soldiers, many of whom learned computer skills to clamber up to the shrinking middle classes. "Up until a couple of years ago, I worked as an administrative assistant for an hourly rate one-third of what I now make," Microsoft temp Jennifer Witsoe wrote the Washington Department of Labor and Industries during its public comment period. "I resent being penalized for finding an environment in which I can use my computer knowledge, my language skills, and my brain for greater remuneration."

Salaried professionals, with computer science degrees, management, or executive responsibilities and independent consultants who can make hundreds of dollars per hour aren't affected by the rule. It remains unclear whether it will cut the pay of Web designers, technical writers and editors, and other computer-savvy employees.

Some petitioners also complained that the new move was motivated by businesses that want mid-income employees to take up the slack for management waste and incompetence. "The need for overtime comes from mismanagement of project resources and deadlines," Witsoe wrote. Businesses that routinely fail to use their resources wisely or to employ enough people to finish a project on schedule don't deserve a discount on the services of their employees. Why offer Microsoft a savings (at the cost of workers) for shipping software late?

"The stress and strain on me and my family are only partially mitigated by the fact that I earn time-and-a-half," Boeing contractor Richard Tamler wrote. "Take that away, and it simply won't be worth the trouble."

None of those arguments seemed to faze state officials. After extending the comment period a token two weeks in December, Department of Labor and Industries director Gary Moore put the rule into effect without further changes or comment. It would appear that he had made up his mind with the help of the Washington Software and Digital Media Alliance, a trade group that petitioned for the change.

State officials say they are only bringing Washington into line with the Federal Fair Labor Standards Act, amended in 1992 to exempt computer professionals from overtime pay. Several states, including Oregon and Colorado, recently did the same thing. Plus, many states that don't have their own employment codes have followed the federal law. Yet none of these states harbors a Microsoft or a Boeing. California, home to Silicon Valley, still requires overtime pay for hourly computer workers, as do Montana and Massachusetts.

I suppose that if Bill Clinton jumped off a cliff, Washington state would too? Hardly. It's just a convenient excuse.

I like the way one anonymous email petitioner put it. A company that relies so heavily on temporary labor, he wrote, shouldn't get to "have its workers and eat them too." In the last ten years, employers like Microsoft and Boeing have increasingly balanced the burdens of the global marketplace on the shoulders of these "disposable workers." Now, with this new ruling, it would appear that they're free to do so at new, even lower, cut-rate prices.

Of course, computer workers aren't taking this lying down. They've already met with labor union organizers, who are encouraging them to fight through collective bargaining.

Deals cut by unions are unaffected by the new rule. After trying for years, unsuccessfully, to organize middle- and upper-income Information Age temp workers, it seems that unions finally have their first real opening.

Plus, many workers whose overtime pay was illegally withheld have only just realized that their employers may owe them. One official said the Department of Labor and Industries is fielding phone calls from computer workers who wonder if they've been cheated. "There may be some claims," she said.

If nothing else, the new rule is helping to educate the workforce. So there may be a silver lining after all.