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Jewish World Review April 10, 2002 / 29 Nisan, 5762

Bob Greene

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Throwing the office
game into overtime | If America's titans of industry -- the powerful and sometimes ruthless men and women in charge of the nation's corporations -- are nervous already about squeezing every last penny out of their annual budgets, here's something to really put trembles into their steps:

What if the workers they employ were to become newly interested in a concept that seems for some reason to have gone out of favor:


You remember overtime. It once was a standard part of the U.S. officeplace. If you worked more than your standard 40 hours, you got extra pay for it -- usually 150 percent of your hourly pay.

In some trades -- often trades in which workers' contracts are negotiated by strong unions -- overtime is still a common facet of the job. A man or woman agrees to work a certain number of hours a week -- if he or she is told to do more, he or she gets a bonus rate for the labor.

But in many workplaces -- especially in the white-collar segment that has grown in recent years -- overtime seems to have become a distant rumor. We'll get to the reason why in a moment.

At the same time this has been happening, CEOs -- who are rewarded for the profit margins they produce -- are applauded by Wall Street every time they lay off 3,000 or 4,000 employees. This is seen as creative business strategy on their part -- tossing people out of work, creating havoc and pain for thousands of families. Wall Street boos the executives who keep their people working in tough times; it gives standing ovations to the executives who kick men and women out the door.

What this does is to create more work for the employees who are left behind -- employees who, as often as not, are grateful not to have been axed, and afraid they may be next. Can't blame them -- they in fact might be next. Now . . . to a point American workers might want to think about.

We have been told endlessly what an absolutely wonderful new world technology has given us. Our electronic mail can reach us anywhere, any time; we never have to miss a phone call even after hours because voice mail has replaced receptionists and secretaries; machines we clip onto our belts can keep us connected with the office anywhere in the world. We're all like little James Bonds, wired through satellites. We have been conditioned to think that this is as cool as cool can be.

That's what they want us to think -- the men and women in the corporate suites. They want us to think we're players in this great video game, fortunate to be issued our space-age equipment.

Meanwhile, the layoffs of our fellow human beings continue.

How about this -- just to think about:

What if, all over America, millions of workers were to come into their offices on a given morning and hand their supervisors slips of paper putting in for overtime -- an hour, two hours?

You know the question that would be asked by the supervisors in every office, in every city:

"What's this for?"

And the answers might be -- should be:

"I called in to the voice mail system from home last night and picked up some messages."

Or: "I answered some e-mail from home over the weekend."

Or: "Someone paged me last night on my way home from work, and I answered the page."

You see where this is going? The little toys have had their effect: They have put employees to work 24 hours a day. Because the office no longer has walls, the day no longer has an end. Before the toys were invented, if an employee was called in at night or on the weekend to answer mail or respond to calls or deal with business questions, he or she would be on overtime. Now, though, because of the electronic tethers. . . .

What if, as one, America's workers rose up and said: We're cutting the tethers at quitting time each afternoon? We'll work when we're at the office -- and see you again when we arrive in the morning? If you want us to deal with any business matters in between, that's overtime?

Just something to consider. Running out of space here. See you next time.

And a half.

JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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