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Logging the Hours

Juan Fourneau

I GREW UP IN a blue-collar family. When money was tight, one strategy my dad used to improve the situation was simple but effective. Overtime, time-and-a-half and double-time were all terms I heard frequently throughout my childhood.

In this Iowa factory town, those words can still be regularly heard at the taverns, bowling alley and family get-togethers. Overtime is the gift that can make a low-paying factory job worthwhile. Time-and-a-half turns that $12 job into a far more palatable $18 an hour, and can make the difference between renting and owning a home.

If you can land that great job in your local area that pays $25 to $40 an hour, those overtime hours become truly lucrative. Once I began my job at the chemical plant in 1999, the idea of getting a second job went out the window. Making time-and-a-half became your second job. Spouses accommodated your overtime because neither of you could replicate that income elsewhere.

I never developed the taste for overtime—or had the stamina to put in the hours—that some of my coworkers did. One year, I logged 500 hours of overtime. But I was single then, with no kids, and had just bought a house. The money came in handy furnishing my home, and my routine was pretty simple. Go to work for 12 hours. Hit the gym, sleep and eat. Repeat.

This year, by contrast, I’ll log around 225 hours of overtime. Most of it is organic. I don’t seek it out. It’s what I get when covering production demands and for vacations taken by others.

We get paid biweekly. Today, my take-home pay is around $2,000 every two weeks. It doesn’t take much overtime to bump that up. If your life is set up to live off your 40-hour pay, the OT is all gravy.

I once worked several 12-hour days, along with a Saturday, and brought home $3,000 after Uncle Sam took his hefty cut. It’s a good feeling, for sure, but you don’t see your family much during those two weeks.

A year after I started in the plant, around 2000, one coworker told me he once broke the $100,000 mark. For those of us with high school diplomas, who live in a low-cost part of the country, that’s a lot of cash— an annual wage our parents never saw and money many of us never thought we’d make. But my coworker shared with me that it wasn’t worth it. He wanted to do it once, but it took 800-plus hours of overtime to do it. All you do is work, he said, and then recover from work.

Some in the plant eat overtime like candy. They have the energy to work the hours and their batteries just run hotter. Some have spouses who stay at home with the kids. They work a ton of overtime and their partners don’t expect as much from them when they get home.

An old boss spent the first half of his career doing shift work. After weeks of marathon shifts, he came home to an annoyed wife. As they sat down to dinner, he noticed she’d put name tags on their kids. He got the message.

In fact, he worked so much overtime that he took a pay cut during his first years in a management role. He told me he knew he had a problem when he got agitated looking at a paycheck that didn’t have a single hour of overtime on it.

Honestly, I admired how he put his three daughters through college and maintained his marriage. They always took vacations, and went camping as a family. He seemed like my dad. If he wasn’t at work, he was home. If he wasn’t at home, he was at work.

Over the years, I’ve recognized a sadder element to a few of these overtime machines. They don’t want to be at home, and their family doesn’t seem to mind them being gone. The house is quiet, with the dad usually at work, and the fat checks keep rolling in. Not my cup of tea, but who am I to judge?

One coworker shared a story from his old employer in Davenport, Iowa. The warehouse he worked in was notorious for its overtime. He knew he didn’t want that life when another employee, who was gravely ill, wasn’t responding when his family members spoke to him. But when they asked some of his coworkers to talk to him, he was acknowledging their voices. My friend said that did it for him. He began looking for another job.

For the past five years or so, I’ve usually made around $50 an hour when I work time-and-a-half. The math is simple. Work 100 hours of overtime and you got an extra $5,000. Those workhorses doing 700 or more hours of overtime per year? That’s big money. These folks, who love their overtime, can recite their employer’s compensation policy as if it’s burned into their brains.

One year, on July 4th, we were forced to work the holiday. Some coworkers, who were older and had families, wanted the day off. They were already going to get eight hours of straight time—which was their holiday pay—and they wanted to watch the parade and fireworks.

I was on graveyards that week, so I started late, around midnight. I worked my night shift, and got time-and-a-half for those hours, plus my eight hours of holiday pay. I went home, got some sleep, and came back to cover someone’s 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. shift. I was pleasantly surprised when I got my check to see I received double time for those eight hours on the second shift.

A few other local area employers pay just as well or even better. One of my friends from the gym, who works at the local power plant, has made some serious money maximizing his OT. He works hard and plays hard. He has a great relationship with his grown children and has been married for decades. He just isn’t the type to sit at home and watch Netflix all day. He grew up always having to work if he wanted name-brand jeans or a car. I was at a local barbecue and someone said that, in terms of pay, he was only below the general manager and the most upper management at his plant.

I’ll be sticking with my overtime policy of only working when my team needs me to. If coworkers want the overtime hours and the cash that comes with it, they can have it. But it’s good to know that, if I do have to work some extra hours, I’ll get paid well for my time. Seems like a fair deal to me.

Juan Fourneau’s goal is to retire at age 55. When he isn’t at his manufacturing job, he enjoys reading and writing about personal finance, investing and his other interests. Juan, who is married with two children, retired from the ring after wrestling on the independent circuit for more than 25 years. He wrestled as a Mexican Luchador under the name Latin Thunder. Follow Juan on Twitter @LatinThunder1, visit his website and check out his previous articles.

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