Getting a promotion is usually a cause for celebration. But after Chip Ahlgren was made a general manager at a Jiffy Lube in Washington state, he moved from an hourly position to a salaried one, and was no longer owed overtime pay when he put in more than 40 hours a week. Instead, Ahlgren could be asked to work as many hours as his boss demands for the same $52,000 a year.
These days, he’s putting in around 60 hours a week, even though his contract says he’s supposed to work 50 hours and the payroll system only counts 40 hours a week for the purpose of accruing sick leave. His managers keep giving him more to do. “They just add and add and add,” he said. “There’s no way for us to get everything done.”
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While overall his pay is higher than it was when he was hourly thanks to bonuses, those bonuses aren’t guaranteed. In terms of guaranteed pay per hour, he’s making less: He estimates that right now, it averages out to about $8 an hour, whereas the people below him make $16 an hour. And so much intense work has taken a huge toll on him. “It wears you out to work this many hours,” he said. “I’ve blown out my knee, blown out my back. I’m almost on the brink of not being able to survive physically.”
Ahlgren isn’t eligible for overtime pay because the federal threshold of $23,660 to qualify has gone without an update for decades. And without extra overtime pay for his extra hours, he’s just keeping his head above water financially. “I don’t have really enough to survive or go to the doctor or plan for the future or anything like that,” he said.
Ahlgren may be able to look forward to some relief, however. At the beginning of June, the Washington State Department of Labor & Industries released a plan to update its own overtime threshold. It would ensure that any worker in the state who makes less than 2.5 times the minimum wage — by 2026, nearly $80,000 a year — will be owed overtime pay. About 400,000 people like Ahlgren are expected to be affected.
The state of Washington had to take matters into its own hands because efforts to increase the overtime threshold at the federal level have stalled. In 2016, the Obama administration updated federal overtime rules so those making $47,476 or less would be automatically covered, both hourly and salaried. It would have been updated every three years to keep up with wage growth thereafter, likely covering those making $51,000 by early 2020.
But the update was challenged in court and ultimately struck down. Rather than defend the Obama update, the Trump administration first did nothing, and then put forward its own proposed increase to $35,308 without any automatic updates. According to the Economic Policy Institute, it will cover 8.2 million fewer people than the Obama rule would eventually have.
In the wake of Trump’s weak federal action, a number of states have stepped into the breach, because, as with the minimum wage, federal overtime law is just a floor; states and localities can go higher if they choose.
“This is a standard that is really important to the vibrancy of the middle class, and it has dramatically eroded over time,” said Heidi Shierholz, senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute. The minimum wage raises pay and living standards for those at the very bottom, but overtime is “about the lower end of the middle class,” she said. The typical person impacted by it is the front-line supervisor in a fast food restaurant or retail store — a low-level manager who may be asked to put in 60 to 70 hours a week at no additional pay. Updating overtime therefore acts as a “companion standard” to increasing the minimum wage, she said.
Pennsylvania was the first to act when last year Gov. Tom Wolf (D) proposed raising the state’s threshold to $47,892 by 2022 and updating it automatically every three years after that. California and New York have also taken action: California‘s overtime threshold will cover everyone making less than $62,400 by 2023, while New York will raise it to $58,500 in New York City and phase it in at different rates for different parts of the state.
But Washington state has so far gone the furthest. “The Washington announcement is definitely the boldest,” said Paul Sonn, state policy program director at the National Employment Law Project. “It’s a model for how states can take strong action to protect workers from the Trump overtime rollback. We hope it’ll spur more states.”Previously, about two-thirds of the salaried workforce had to be paid overtime when they worked more than 40 hours a week. Washington’s update would cover about 44 percent, Sonn said: “It’s really quite moderate historically because it wouldn’t fully restore overtime pay to the share that had it in the 1970s.”
One of the beneficiaries in Washington would be Sidney Kenney. When he started working at a residential service provider for developmentally disabled people in a salaried position, he was told the job would be 9 to 5, Monday through Friday. “Soon you find out that’s not true,” he said. He was required to always be on call, even on weekends, holidays, and vacations. It meant keeping his phone at the ready even when at the movies or in bed. “It changes how you live,” he said.
He once took a vacation to go to a friend’s wedding but found himself having to do work on the way there, during the wedding, and on the way home. Every time he put in those extra hours, he was paid the same. “It builds resentment,” he said. “You’re angry, you feel like you’ve been lied to, feel like you’ve been taken advantage of.”
So, he decided to move to an hourly position instead. “I loved the job I was doing,” he said. “However, I realized it was not a lifestyle I could continue or wanted to continue.” Now he has a set number of hours, and if he has to come in early or stay late, he’s paid for that extra time. “My days off are my days off,” he said. “I still get phone calls from work and I still get some text messages, but I don’t have to answer them.”
“Your time is invaluable,” he noted. “I can plan things, I can enjoy my time. It’s a crazy world and nothing’s promised, so what time I do have I want to enjoy.”
But he thinks if his state’s proposed overtime update goes into effect, almost all of the positions at his job will simply be made hourly to accommodate it. “I would have stayed in the same position if it were hourly,” he noted. “If they were to extend the same position I had … but in an hourly capacity, I would go back to it.”
Ahlgren doesn’t expect that being covered by overtime regulations would reduce his hours. But it will mean extra money for his extra work. “At least I would be able to go to the doctor and take of myself,” he said. “I would be able to plan for a future where I wouldn’t just have to do this forever.”
Other states may soon join in the action. Last week Massachusetts held a hearing on a bill that would increase its threshold to $64,000 by 2026. Colorado’s labor department kicked off a comment process for whether and by how much it should raise its overtime standards, which will continue through Aug. 15. And a bill has been introduced in Maine’s legislature to increase its threshold. There may be others just waiting in the wings: Sonn noted that 16 states filed objections to Trump’s overtime update. “That shows there’s a long list of states that think it’s not enough,” he said. “We may well see them acting in the future.”
Workers in Washington also hope their state can inspire others to act. “So many businesses have built their models around having these free workers,” Kenney noted. “It’s not right, it’s not ethical, and it’s not fair.”
“I’m just hoping more states follow suit,” he said.