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posted: 9/22/2013 6:27 AM

Work advice: Exempt employees stuck with long hours

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Q: I am a midlevel manager at a distribution center. My seven fellow managers and I are all salaried, while the 100 or so workers we manage get an hourly wage. We make most of our money in the fourth quarter of the year during the holidays. For years, it was understood that during the busy months we would work long days, sometimes up to seven days a week, 10 hours a day. The saving grace was that for the remainder of the year we would work four 10-hour days and have a three-day weekend.

Several months ago, we managers were told we now have to work five days a week, presumably at least eight hours, year-round. However, many of our hourly staff still work four 10-hour days, requiring management presence for at least 10 hours on those days. Now, all the managers are working 50 to 60 hours a week with no change in pay or benefits. We feel taken advantage of. Is there anything we can do to alleviate this situation?

Karla: A quick legal primer on workweeks and overtime: Under the Fair Labor Standards Act, workers must be paid the national minimum wage and overtime for any hours over 40 a week, unless their job is classified as "exempt." Just being paid a salary doesn't mean you're exempt; to find out if your job may qualify for overtime pay, fill out the questionnaire at the Labor Department's online "Fair Labor Standards Act Advisor."

But let's assume you're correctly classified as an exempt employee. In that case, you're pretty much stuck working however long it takes to get the job done. Your best hope is to convince your bosses that burning through managers is a poor use of resources, and a policy change is due. They might decide to spread the misery around by ending flex time for your hourly workers, too; a better solution would be to reduce the worker-to-manager ratio by hiring or promoting new managers, or by training and authorizing high-performing hourly workers to take on some management duties in exchange for overtime pay.

If those efforts fail, see whether you can organize your shifts so every manager gets a periodic "easy" week. It's not ideal, but it beats running on all bald tires.

Your bosses may just exhort you to do more with less, as too many employers are doing now. If so, they also may find out come busy season that workers running on fumes tend to break down just when they're expected to pick up speed.

• Miller has written for and edited tax publications for 16 years, most recently for the accounting firm KPMG's Washington National Tax office. You can find her on Twitter, @KarlaAtWork.

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