Recently, in response to Obama’s recently announced executive action on overtime, we asked readers working in creative industries affected to write in and tell us a little bit about how they stand to benefit (or not). We got a lot of submissions.
The new overtime directive, effective December 1, 2016, will raise the threshold for overtime pay eligibility from $23,660 a year up to $47,476 a year, making an estimated 4.2 million additional workers eligible for overtime. The change is characterized by the Department of Labor as a long-overdue modernization, since the current threshold, updated only once since the ‘70s (in 2004) and diluted by inflation, “has left millions without overtime protections to which they should be entitled,” according to the Department of Labor.
This directive is only meant to directly affect salaried workers, since hourly workers are supposed to earn overtime already; it will allow full-time salaried workers making under $47,476 to receive overtime benefits if they exceed 40 hours per week. According to the Obama administration, employers have a few options for how to account for the change: reduce workers’ hours to 40 per week, pay time-and-a-half for overtime hours worked, or raise workers’ salaries above the new threshold. Once above this salary threshold, employees are subject to various professional, administrative, and executive exemptions, rendering overtime benefits possible but less likely.
Republican legislators, unsurprisingly, have claimed that this will kill jobs and destroy the economy, but others have taken issue with the rule, as well. The New York Times recently chronicled a bit of an upset in the creaking, inflexible world of “prestige” creative professions like publishing and film—publishing house Workman’s general manager Jill Salayi claimed that reducing workers’ hours would lead to less “timely advancement and/or promotions,” while, in a somewhat dense interpretation of the new law, Andrew Wiley of the Wiley Literary Agency refused to “sit at the door with a stopwatch” and keep tabs on his employees.
While the overtime directive will affect a wide variety of industries (although, as mentioned, certain employees in certain industries are subject to exemptions from minimum wage and overtime pay under the Fair Labor Standards Act, and doctors, lawyers, and teachers will not be affected by the new overtime rule at all), its influence on so-called creative industries will be particularly interesting, as these are often jobs whose desirability and prestige juxtaposes sharply against dismal starting salaries and long hours, which can—especially in industries such as, say, fashion, or journalism—lead to a startlingly non-diverse workplace comprised of individuals who can afford to work for very little.
(It bears noting that one of several exemptions involves “creative professionals.” In order to qualify for this exemption, a worker must be paid at the new salary threshold of $47,476, and their duties must involve “invention, imagination, originality or talent in a recognized field of artistic or creative endeavor,” according to the Department of Labor. Not all work in creative fields involves such “invention” or “imagination,” and regardless, as you’ll see in the responses below, this new salary threshold should have a significant effect on many workers in creative fields.)
The responses to our query ranged wildly. Many had reservations: some were concerned about an added strain on small businesses, a working parent worried about being switched to hourly pay and losing her job flexibility, and several believed that companies would simply try to sneak around the law.
Indeed, employers can (and some likely will) recalibrate pay rates to account for the new law in order to avoid spending more money, reducing an employee’s hourly pay to account for their new overtime earnings. Judy Conti, federal advocacy coordinator for the National Employment Law Project, told me in a phone interview that she believes using this tactic would “backfire” on employers, as workers would likely pack their bags (although one can imagine circumstances under which that might be difficult).
As for the question of small businesses, “the fact of the matter is if the only way a business can succeed is by working someone at 60 hours a week for $25,000 a year, if the profit margin is that small, then that business has really big problems in and of itself,” she said. “That’s not the model we need to embrace as a country.”
Some workers may be taken from salaried to hourly in order to better track their time, Conti allowed (the Department of Labor stresses that employers are not required to make this switch), but removing their benefits as a result of this switch would be, again, a “shortsighted thing to do” on the part of employers, as those employees would likely try to find a new job. Conti contended that much of the fuss over the new law is “vastly overblown,” and stressed that the regulation will be good for employers, as well, providing them with a happier, more loyal, more productive workforce.
We received emails and comments from chefs, modeling scouts, theater crew workers, editorial assistants, and beyond, some of whom work under less than ideal circumstances. Here are their thoughts.
Sally Wolff, 28, an executive chef at a small Washington gastropub who makes $27K, was not optimistic about the overtime rule. Wolff says she is salaried at 40 hours per week, but works 50 hours without overtime or benefits; the restaurant, a two-year “labor of love,” is not yet profitable, and Wolff is afraid the new law will shut it down.
“I know I’m worth far more money. I also know that we don’t HAVE any money, and I’m willing to make a garbage rate because I love my job,” she wrote. “There’s absolutely no way the owners can double my pay without going out of business—the money just isn’t there. And no matter how you slice it, its literally impossible for me to do my job in under 40 hours a week. I feel like this is a death sentence for small business owners.”
Elizabeth, a 24-year-old former writer at a large content marketing agency who asked to keep her last name anonymous, reported making a salary of $30,000 and generally worked 50+ hours per week; she said that the fact that the job required night and weekend work went unspoken.
She doesn’t currently stand to benefit from the overtime directive, as she’s now a freelance writer, but “it’s this sort of ‘character building,’ ‘weeding out the weak’ type of mentality that I expect will suffer immensely under this new law,” she wrote.
Marie*, 26, is an editorial assistant at a Condé Nast publication making a base salary of $35,000 plus overtime; as she already receives overtime pay, she doesn’t expect much to change for her in the short term.
However, “I think it will make a difference once I’m promoted,” she said. “I imagine they will offer me at least $47K, so as to exceed the OT limit, which gives me a little optimism for editorial assistants moving forward—they will be able to move into a livable salary wage much faster than before, as the first promotion will give a more substantial salary bump. Now, maybe more people from low-income backgrounds will be able to afford this career.”
Danielle*, 25, an assistant at a Hollywood production company, makes $30,000 plus benefits and says she works approximately 53 hours per week—adding that some assistants work at least 60, and that everyone is expected to read about two to eight hours worth of books/scripts over the weekend. She does not receive overtime.
If she were to choose between more money or a 40-hour week, “I would honestly love if my hours were cut,” but she doesn’t think that’s going to happen. “It’s less about the volume of work we’re doing and more about, you know, God forbid the head of the studio calls at 7 pm and there’s no one here to answer the phone. The basic rule of thumb is that you MUST arrive before your boss and leave after, so if your boss works twelve hours, you work thirteen—it’s very Devil Wears Prada over here.”
Kelly Stout, deputy editor at Gawker.com, also worked as an editorial assistant at Condé Nast several years back, making a salary of $35,000. “Low, too low, but I can’t remember a single time when my boss (who was a complete pleasure to work with and for) asked me to work more than 40 hours a week,” she wrote.
Erin D., 37, is a former carpenter for a theater in South Carolina; most of her colleagues in the tech crew made very low salaries with no overtime or benefits, but “for some administrative reason” she was made hourly, at $14/hour plus overtime.
“Immediately after starting the season, we were putting in 80-90 hours/week starting in August, and didn’t take a day off till Thanksgiving,” she wrote. “I was making mad money, but [the salaried workers] were supposed to be racking up enough comp time to take the summers off. However, there was never a light enough workload for anyone to be out for that long, and I’m sure the people still there are owed many years of comp time by now, bless their hearts.
“I can’t imagine what the admins there will do when these new rules take effect—they’re used to abusing the bejeezus out of their tech crews!”
Lucas Woith, 33, works as a sous chef for a catering company. At a salary of $35,000 plus benefits, he says his hours fluctuate up to around 60 per week and that he works six days per week during the spring/summer season, hours that “take their toll physically and on my social life and relationships.”
“It remains to be seen what will happen when the overtime rules take affect,” he said. “My fiancée is hoping I’ll either start bringing home huge paychecks, or I’ll be home more.”
Bill R., a mid-level manager at a New York-based publication, currently makes above the new cutoff rate. “But the staff under me—primarily editors in their 20s—all likely make between $35-40k,” he wrote. Bill plans to repurpose an old iPod touch as the company’s “time clock,” which will cost “a grand total of $4.99.”
“I expect my bosses will try to fight this every way they can,” he said, “and I have encouraged the editors—without whom the company would simply collapse—to stand firm and simply ask for what is their right under the law.”
Zan Emerson, 30, worked until recently as a box office manager and marketing coordinator at a mid-sized music venue in Manhattan. She made $40,000 with some health benefits, but “there is absolutely no work-life balance in the live music industry”; she estimates that she would have made around $40,000 more in her five years there had this overtime law been in place.
Despite working a daytime job, “as the events happened at night I was expected to be available by phone or email at all times,” Zan wrote. “Vacations weren’t vacations—our department was so small that we’d need to make time to do our work no matter what.” However, “My burnout was much more so a result of feeling undervalued than the work itself,” and she would have preferred a salary bump to a 40-hour week.
“As a side note,” Zan added, “I now work at a nonprofit with a very firm 40 hour per week schedule. The pay is moderate, the benefits are great, and I don’t have my work email on my phone. It’s amazing.”
Lucy*, 24, is a scout at a New York-based modeling agency who makes $40,000 a year with no overtime. “I scout all the models, do their work visas, manage social media, basically serve as the art department and occasionally book them. It’s a lot of shit,” she wrote.
“We are allowed 20 minutes at most for lunch. If we’re gone longer, we get continuous phone calls telling us to return,” she said. “On Memorial Day, I received a slew of emails from my boss asking me why I was being unresponsive. On vacation we are required to spend 3 hours a day answering emails. Last year when I didn’t have Internet access in rural Italy, my boss asked me why I didn’t just go to a Starbucks.”
Despite reporting what sounds like a pretty unhealthy workplace culture, if she had the choice, Lucy would go for a pay raise or overtime benefits rather than a reduction in hours. “This job is easy as hell, so it’s not so much the work I mind.”
Rachel, 31, a manager at a mid-sized west coast publisher, makes $40,000, receives “excellent” benefits, works about 40 hours per week, and loves her job. She’s concerned that the overtime rule will result in her becoming an hourly worker.
“I don’t have to sweat it if I take a longer lunch, or leave early for a doctor’s appointment, or come in late so I could be at my daughter’s school assembly,” she wrote. “On hourly pay, I would have to ‘make up the time later’, or face a reduced paycheck. I feel like this has the potential to suck a lot of the freedom out of my job.”
Jezebel commenter The Obsidian Order, who is 28, works for a medium-sized graphics firm on a salary of $51,000 a year plus benefits.
The company used to pay OT for every hour worked over 50 hours in a week, but then pushed the line back to every 100 hours in two weeks. They then decided that they were losing too much money on that, so they started offering paid time off instead, but then people were accruing too much time paid time off, so they then added the stipulation that you only got to keep it if you’d worked 100+ hours in a two week period. Anything less that that 100+ (and you have to go over the 100, so if you worked 101 hours you’ve earned 1 hour of PTO) and you have to use that time during the current week or lose it.
She wrote that she no longer works overtime because “it’s clear to me that my time is not appreciated or valued,” but she’s gotten flak for this decision from management:
My employee reviews feel like that scene in Office Space were she’s being called out on her ‘lack of flair.’ I have been told that by working my 40 hours a week, I am doing the minimum and that if I could just please step up my game for the good of the company.
Margot*, 31, makes $40,000 a year plus benefits at a concert promotion company. She works about 50-55 hours per week, including night and weekend work, and does not receive overtime pay. At her previous job booking a D.C. music venue, however, she only made around $32,000 a year:
“When I asked my boss for a raise after working there for four years, he gave me a bartending shift,” she said. “He was notoriously cheap, though. My desk chair was like 15 years old and uncomfortable as fuck.”
Annie*, 23, is a publishing assistant at a major book publishing house in New York who makes around $36,000 a year plus overtime, and receives good benefits. She reports generally clocking 40-45 hours per week, not including time spent reading and editing outside of the office.
However, “I know from assistants in other divisions and imprints that some are told to clock the same 35 hours of work every week, and ‘told’ they can’t work more than those hours. Some managers are strict and tell assistants to go home, but plenty more are just turning a blind eye as employees are working more hours than they are clocking. I have also heard of assistants who, when promoted, actually take a pay cut, because they go from non-exempt to exempt, receive a very small raise, and lose their overtime rate.
“Because of this, I don’t see the new overtime laws affecting companies like mine much—I could see other employers react to these laws in the same way, i.e. ‘pay’ overtime but indirectly encourage employees to clock less time than they work. Of course, creative companies tout this idea that they can’t afford to pay support staff more. That, frankly, is bullshit: the amount of fat that could be cut in other ways is staggering.”
*Names have been changed; some last names have been redacted at individuals’ requests.
Correction: A previous version of this piece misidentified Zan Emerson as male; she is a woman. We regret the error.
Illustration via Angelica Alzona