Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Non-paid work hours

Ars Technica has an article up today about workers who put in a lot of unpaid hours thanks to their mobile devices. This isn't a new dynamic by any means, we had a lot of this crop up when Corporate web-mail started becoming ubiquitous, and before that with the few employees using remote desktop software (PCAnywhere anyone?) to read email from home over corporate dialup. The BlackBerry introduced the phenomena to the rest of the world, and the smartphone revolution is bringing this to the masses.

My old workplace was union, so was in the process of figuring out how to compensate employees for after-hours call-out shortly after we got web-mail working. There were a few state laws and similar rulings that directed how it should be handled, and ultimately they decided on no less than 2-hours overtime pay for issues handled on the phone, and no less than 4-hours overtime pay for issues requiring a site-visit. Yet, no payment for being officially on-call with a mandatory response time; it was seen that actually responding to the call was the payment. Even if being on-call meant not being able to go to a child's 3 hour Dance recital.

Now that I'm an exempt employee, I don't get anything like overtime. If I spend 36 hours in a weekend shoving an upgrade into our systems through sheer force of will, I don't automatically get Monday off or a whonking big extra line-item on my next paycheck. It's between me and my manager how many hours I need to put in that week.

As for on-call, we don't have a formal on-call schedule. All of us agree we don't want one, and strive to make the informal one work for us all. No one wants to plan family vacations around an on-call schedule, or skip out of town sporting events for their kids just so they can be no more than an hour from the office just in case. It works for us, but all it'll take to force a formal policy is one bad apple.

For large corporations with national or global workforces, such gentleman's agreements aren't really doable. Therefore, I'm not at all surprised to see some lawsuits being spawned because of it. Yes, some industries come with on-call rotations baked in (systems administration being one of them). Others, such as tech-writing, don't generally have much after-hours work, and yet I've seen second hand such after hours work (working on docs, conference calls, etc) consume an additional 6 hours a day.

Paid/unpaid after hours work gets even more exciting if there are serious timezone differences involved. East Coast workers with the home-office on the West Coast will probably end up with quite a few 11pm conference calls. Reverse the locations, and the West Coast resident will likely end up with a lot of 5am conference calls. Companies that have drank deeply from the off-shoring well have had to deal with this, but have had the benefit of different labor laws in their off-shored countries.

"Work" is now very flexible. Certain soulless employers will gleefully take advantage of that, which is where the lawsuits come from. In time, we may get better industry standard practice for this sort of thing, but it's still several years away. Until then, we're on our own.

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