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It’s time to talk about overtime

ACWA Inc - Wednesday, May 30, 2018
We all do it: stay back or take work home after our workday has officially ended - often without asking for, or being offered, pay or time-in-lieu.

Sometimes it’s by choice. It can be tempting to try and catch up instead of adding to tomorrow’s task list. At other times it can feel like there is no choice. A late in the day crisis can destroy hope of leaving work on time, as can a fast-approaching deadline.

While this is not ideal, it is a reality of employment. Overtime becomes a problem, however, when it is unreasonable, routine, excessive and unpaid.

Legally, your employer can ask you to perform reasonable overtime regardless of whether you receive a salary or wage. This could be outside of your usual work hours for example, before 9am or after 5pm, or on top of your agreed number of hours for the day/week.

To decide whether a request is reasonable, your supervisor must consider factors like:
  • health and safety risks
  • how much notice they can give you
  • compensation (i.e. pay, penalty rates, salary, or time in lieu )
  • your personal situation and after-work commitments
  • usual work patterns for the industry
The Fair Work Ombudsman website has a detailed list.

Health and welfare are at the forefront of the issue. Employers can foresee most risks by considering the number of hours a person has already worked, the intensity of the work and additional factors like travel. Safety extends beyond the shift itself. Working late into the night, for example, can lead to drowsiness behind the wheel of a car or reduced options for public transport (extending an already tiring day). Some employers will offer concessions, like reimbursing taxi fares, to address these problems.

Late last year we held a national survey into workplace practices and conditions in the community sector. We will release the final report shortly, but here is a sneak peak of what we found when we asked practitioners about overtime:

 Question: overtime
 Most of the time  
 I am compensated for work
 outside of my regular hours
(either via pay or time in lieu)
 14.87%  29.23%  28.21%  195

As you can see, only 28 per cent of respondents report that they can rely on compensation for the additional hours they work. For all other respondents, they are giving their time for free, whether by choice, perceived necessity, or expectation, without an absolute guarantee of compensation.

Once a person regularly takes on overtime, employers may take this for granted. Supervisors can start to rely on (or even take advantage of) an employee’s conscientiousness or even their fear of consequences for not coping with their work load. This level of exploitation is clearly unacceptable: an employee is not a volunteer.

The overtime situation is complicated. If you are on a salary and get paid a set amount you should be compensated for overtime in other ways, for example, time-in-lieu. During the recruitment process you and your employer should discuss the expectations of your work week. Jobs that involve long hours or being ‘on call’, generally attract a higher salary to make up for this. Organisations may also arrange block days off to offset extended work hours and to allow for a fair work-life balance. Workloads change daily but on average the time needed to do your job should match your pre-employment agreement.

Relying on people to work excessive hours is not a sustainable business model; the short-term gain is outweighed by lack of productivity, reduced staff morale and possibility of staff error. For community sector organisations this may translate into a bad reputation, unsafe conditions for clients, high staff turnover and ongoing recruitment costs.

So, what should you do if you find yourself under pressure to work extra hours?

If it’s an issue of your workload then you need to raise this. No one wants to admit to their supervisor that they are struggling to keep pace, but you can only do your best in the time available. Overtime is a short-term solution and one your body, mentally and physically, will not cope with forever.

If your co-workers are in the same situation, this points to understaffing. We touched on this in an earlier blog you can read. A typical workload in an organisation can still be one that pushes practitioners too far. There is a point where a service or program does not have the staffing capacity to meet its goals and this is a management issue. It may also be a public policy issue when clients are adversely affected.

Know your rights: you can refuse to do unpaid overtime, but if you suspect you will need to stay back, discuss this with your manager beforehand. If you’re on a wage and work extra hours without pre-approval, your employer may refuse to compensate you. Without these discussions organisations may, incorrectly, assume that there is no problem in staffing levels, or workloads.

All employees can refuse paid overtime if it is unreasonable or unsafe. Refer to or contact the Fair Work Ombudsman.

Saying no to your boss, however, is easier said than done. Identifying the issues will help you have a more productive discussion with your manager than a straight out refusal. You should also discuss this situation with colleagues. Sometimes people put in extra hours because everyone else is staying late and you want to seem like a team player. Long-term this is not a viable option and undermines the conditions under which people are employed. A collective response to unfair working conditions can be brought up in staff meetings and will have more impact than an individual complaint.

At the end of the day you should search an employer with a demonstrated commitment to work-life balance. You may not find one right away, but they are out there.

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