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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.

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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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George Counihan
George Counihan
11 days ago

Good article Juan … OT paid for 2 undergrads and a masters for my kids … they left the house debt free with nice down payments on their first homes and gave them a great head start … enabled my wife and I to live a nice comfortable middle class life without worries to this day … Could not have done it without a supportive spouse … The only downside I saw was people who used it to increase their lifestyle too far and didn’t do well when the OT went away … like everything else in life moderation and discipline were key

Juan Fourneau
Juan Fourneau
11 days ago

Thank you for sharing your experiences! Overtime and the hours you logged provided you and your family quite a bit.

M Plate
M Plate
11 days ago

My career was similar to yours, OT and all. Some guys used to get dependent on the OT. They moaned whenever it wasn’t available.

Often, at the beginning of the year, the manager (especially new managers) would hatch a plan to slash the OT expenses. They expected the same output on reduced hours. By spring they admitted defeat and allowed OT again. By this time, the workers had adjusted to having more time off and were reluctant to put in extra hours.

Juan Fourneau
Juan Fourneau
11 days ago
Reply to  M Plate

Thank you for your comments. I’ve seen a few get dependent on those overtime checks. When the hours shrink it’s a big adjustment.

Mike Gaynes
Mike Gaynes
12 days ago

When I was in TV news — a notoriously low-paying job at the time — I would volunteer to work double shifts on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, so I’d get overtime and double holiday pay. Being Jewish and single, it was no real sacrifice, and in addition to nearly tripling my paycheck for the week, I got lots of warm appreciation from the staffers I covered for.

And I didn’t miss out on Christmas dinner, because all of us working would spread a pot luck buffet on the assignment desk after the 6:00 newscast. I think we ate better than some of the folks who were home with their families. It was not unusual to hear burps (and giggles) in the studio during the 10pm newscast.

Last edited 12 days ago by Mike Gaynes
Juan Fourneau
Juan Fourneau
12 days ago
Reply to  Mike Gaynes

Thank you for sharing that story! A win win for everyone. Double time, Holiday pay, that’s big $$.

William Perry
William Perry
12 days ago

I heard on this morning news that strikes were occurring in France on their government’s proposal to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64. As the age demographic increases for the US and the world, the ratio of active workers to total population continues on a downward trend, particularity in developed economies. I do not think our current workforce is overall any less dedicated than in the past but they now have better information available to allow them to make more informed decisions in their career path choices. The pace of change will likely increase and mean employees will need to reinvent their careers multiple times during their working life.

For me, I am planning to increase my allocation to international stocks as the US labor force changes as I re-balance my portfolio. I expect VTWAX or its ETF equivalent will be my choice to increase my international holdings and expect my international holdings will end up in the 25% to 30% of equities in the next decade or so.

I agree with Juan and others that most active employees will limit overtime as they age when they have enough to meet needs and key wants. I wonder if at some point traditional aged retirees will want or need to reenter the work force to some degree to have an adequate workforce to make our economy work. I am age 72 and four months out from having stopped work from my primary career and I am thinking about working on a limited basis in a new field. No overtime planned, just a job that has meaning for me that is over when the shift ends. I am giving myself a one year sabbatical.

Last edited 12 days ago by William Perry
Will
Will
10 days ago
Reply to  William Perry

Sabbatical is a great idea. It takes a while to unwind and look at things with a fresh eye. Please take notes and write us next year…

Juan Fourneau
Juan Fourneau
12 days ago
Reply to  William Perry

Enjoy your sabbatical. You’ve earned it!

mytimetotravel
mytimetotravel
12 days ago

I worked as a techie at a megacorp. I joined the company in the UK, and was paid for overtime (which paid for my vacations), When I transferred to the US payroll I was classified as exempt and didn’t get paid for overtime. That didn’t mean it wasn’t expected. I also got less vacation time and longer regular hours with no flexibility.

Juan Fourneau
Juan Fourneau
12 days ago
Reply to  mytimetotravel

Thank you for the comment! I’ve never thought much of overtime policies outside the states. Interesting information I wasn’t aware of.

steveark
steveark
12 days ago

I ran a chemical plant with a couple hundred hourly workers. Ten years ago I had quite a few technicians, high school degreed but no college, making over six figures. Today I’m sure there are quite a few of the same workers breaking $150K, and that’s in Arkansas where the median household income was $42K ten years ago and is $51K today. The overtime was very lucrative for those willing to invest the hours.

Juan Fourneau
Juan Fourneau
12 days ago
Reply to  steveark

Back in 2000 it took 800 plus hours at my job to break six figures as an hourly worker. I made around $90,000 with my bonus and overtime this year. I would speculate there’s a few making close to $150,000.

R Quinn
R Quinn
12 days ago

While there are limits on working hours before it affects your health and family, responsible people like your Dad do what is necessary to make ends meet AND move their families up the economic ladder.

When I was working years ago we had a major construction project underway and the OT was insane. One worker earned so much he showed up as one of the top 20 twenty compensated employees in a corporation of 10,000 a few others bought yachts. Not much of a family life for those guys and perhaps not the best ways to spend their money.

In my early days working back in the 1960s we had a crunch at the beginning of each year and we worked every night and every Saturday between January and April. We grabbed every OT hour we could get.

My Dad was a car salesmen who worked from 8:00 am to 8:00PM six days a week and in the early years in the 1950s seven days a week.

One of my sons seems to have a dark cloud hanging over him when it comes to uncontrollable financial events, so he is doing what is necessary. Even with a masters degree he enjoys working with his hands so he started a small side business doing home repairs and remodeling. It takes a lot of hours, but he still puts his family first trying not to miss any of the grand kids events and activities.

Clearly we need a balance in our lives, but hats off to those who do what is necessary to meet their obligations and strive for a better life.

Juan Fourneau
Juan Fourneau
12 days ago
Reply to  R Quinn

I agree. Extra money helps and can be balanced, especially if it’s temporary. My wife and I would always discuss the hours and the tradeoffs. She would let me know when she reached her limit and would rather have me home than the extra money. It rarely got to that point over the years.

Will
Will
10 days ago
Reply to  Juan Fourneau

I liked your story about the kids with name tags. There are fun ways to make a point.

baldscreen
baldscreen
12 days ago

Hi Juan, this is Chris. Loved your article. My dad worked a lot of OT also at his good union job. So did grandpa. I could relate to what you wrote today. Spouse is salaried, but for a time made OT as a professional. He had to work a lot of holiday shutdowns. We didn’t need the OT for regular expenses, so I would save it. Used some for kids college and daughter’s wedding. He gets bonuses sometimes now and I still save them.

Juan Fourneau
Juan Fourneau
12 days ago
Reply to  baldscreen

Thank you! Overtime is best when it’s not needed for your monthly budget.

Jerry Pinkard
Jerry Pinkard
12 days ago

Good article Juan. Thanks for sharing.

I was always an exempt employee not eligible for OT and my work demands required me to work lots of OT most of my career.

I worked in IT. Early in my career I did not have to work much overtime. Then I went to work for a consulting company and there was always more work than time to do it. One time I worked a minimum of 8 hours a day for 6 straight weeks. I snapped at a coworker. He asked me, “When was the last time you had a day off?”.

I realized I needed to put some boundaries on my work. I decided I would work a maximum of 12 hours a day Monday through Friday and take the weekends off. That worked except when I was traveling. I still worked a lot of OT, but I got to spend time with family and could recharge on the weekends.

I worked on some international projects with people from other countries. Their work ethic was much more relaxed than my company’s work ethic.

Juan Fourneau
Juan Fourneau
12 days ago
Reply to  Jerry Pinkard

Thank you for the comment! Boundaries are needed. I seemed to hit my limit after three weeks of long days. So did my wife and kids.

Ormode
Ormode
12 days ago
Reply to  Jerry Pinkard

Did your consulting company bill for all the hours you worked, while paying you a salary? A lot of contractors have the 10-hour professional day, but weekends always cost the client extra.

Ormode
Ormode
12 days ago

Meanwhile, over in the professional world, you are paid a fixed salary, and it is in the interest of your employer to get you to work as many hours as possible. If you complain, they’ll tell you that if you won’t work 60 hours a week for $135K, there are many who will.
I put in more than a few 12-hour Saturdays, it goes with the territory.

Will
Will
10 days ago
Reply to  Ormode

It’s time we, as a nation, define “professional”. I think it is one of those squishy words that get used in different ways that suit the user best. To me, a professional is someone who puts his client/customer/patient ‘s interests on the same level as his own and is totally transparent with them. Few, few people fill that definition.

Paula Karabelias
Paula Karabelias
12 days ago
Reply to  Ormode

There are many with salaries well under 135k working 60+ hours a week.

Juan Fourneau
Juan Fourneau
12 days ago
Reply to  Ormode

I always liked my deal. 40 hour week. Clear guidelines on what is expected and what you are paid. There was always the promise of more money and bonuses on the salary side. But I’m glad I stayed in my role. As an added bonus, when I left work, I usually left it at work mentally as well.

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