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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Opinion >  Guest Opinion

Jessa Lewis: We’re working for free – that’s bad for families and the economy

Jessa Lewis

As a single working mom, I know the battle many families face to cover the bills and still be present for their kids. Time is the most precious and rare commodity we have, and every hour we spend at work is an hour away from our families, our neighborhoods, and our faith communities. That’s why we get paid for it.

But today, too many of us are putting in extra hours for free, because Washington state hasn’t updated our overtime laws for more than 40 years. That means if you’re making more than $24,000 a year and working more than 40 hours a week, chances are you’re not getting paid for those extra hours. Time is money, but to speak up and push back is to risk losing that needed income, when so many of us are living paycheck to paycheck.

It didn’t used to be this way – in the 1970s, 62 percent of salaried full-time workers were eligible for overtime, so their employers worked them fewer hours and paid them time-and-a-half when they stayed late at the office or worked weekends. But today, only 7 percent of salaried full-time workers are eligible for overtime pay. That doesn’t mean people are working less; in fact, the average salaried employee works 49 hours per week. It just means they’re not getting paid for the time they worked.

The Washington Department of Labor and Industries recently released a plan to restore overtime protections for more than 400,000 Washington workers. Specifically, it will raise the overtime threshold to 2.5 times the state minimum wage, increasing the threshold under which employees must be paid overtime from $24,000 to about $80,000 a year by the time it’s fully phased in, in 2026. To give employers time to plan, the new rule will gradually phase in over six years at different rates for small and large businesses.

This will restore overtime protections for about 45 percent of salaried Washington workers. While this falls short of the number of workers who used to be covered by overtime, it’s still an important step toward ensuring that people are paid for every hour they work, because no one should be forced to work for free. This isn’t an outrageous proposal. The restored threshold would still be considerably lower than the threshold was back when the middle class was at its strongest.

More than half of the workers who will benefit from this restored threshold are women, and many, like myself, are mothers trying to make ends meet. Additionally, 35 percent of this newly protected group of workers are Millennial and Generation Y workers, who struggle to cover increasing rent, pay off student loan debt, and save for a home of their own.

I know the tenuous position our outdated overtime protections put workers in – especially nonprofit professionals. One of my last jobs in the nonprofit sector was as senior staff at a nonprofit specifically geared toward services for low-income people. Not only was I underpaid for a standard 40-hour workweek – a common problem with nonprofits – but I was often working 60 hours a week or more, and I still didn’t qualify for overtime pay. Ultimately, my paycheck wasn’t enough to take care of my daughter and meet basic needs like housing, so I had to leave the nonprofit sector. It’s ridiculous to expect workers to live in poverty so that they can fight poverty, and my story isn’t unique in the nonprofit world, which consistently suffers from burnout and high turnover.

Not only are our outdated overtime protections bad for workers, but they’re bad for the economy and small-business growth. As a small-business owner, I understand the impact for those hustling on the side to start a business. When you’re making only $25,000 per year and working 60 hours a week, there just isn’t time to take on more, which means your great new idea never makes it out of your garage.

Restoring overtime protections is about taking back the value of our time. Employees will either get more hours back so they can take classes or even take a second job to make ends meet, or they’ll get more money in their pockets for the time they do work. In most cases, they’ll enjoy a bit of both.

We should be paid for the work we do – for that time away from our families. When fewer workers are working for free, more people will be hired to keep up with the work. It’s good for workers, and it’s good for the economy.

Jessa Lewis is a business owner and mother living in Spokane.

The Department of Labor & Industries is hosting a public forum in Spokane on Wednesday, Aug. 7, where community members can share their opinions on the proposed rule change. The forum runs from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. at the CenterPlace Regional Event Center in the Valley. You can learn more about the proposal at www.lni.wa.gov.

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