No to longer work weeks

By Patricia Kasten | The Compass | January 15, 2014

Proposal could hurt low-wage workers

How many days of work do you work in a week?

Careful, it’s a trickier question than you might think.

Wisconsin news this week reported on a proposal to change state law to allow workers to volunteer to work more than six days in a row. Current law (103.85) states that employers “shall allow every person, except those specified in sub. (2), employed in such factory or mercantile establishment, at least 24 consecutive hours of rest in every seven consecutive days and shall not permit any such person to work for such employer during such 24 consecutive hour period, except in case of breakdown of machinery or equipment, or other emergency … (Sub-paragraph 2 refers to employees such as security personnel.)

The change in the law was proposed by Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce and presented by Sen. Glenn Grothman, R-West Bend, and Rep. Mark Born, R-Beaver Dam.

If you followed news reports, it might have seemed to you that current law requires that a worker never work more than six days straight. However, the horse is already out of the barn. Plenty of employees work more than seven days in a row — and not because they work more than one job. There is another law on the books that lets employers make you work more days. State statue 275.01 states: “Twenty-four consecutive hours of rest in each calendar week (emphasis added) shall be deemed compliance …”

So, voilà; an employer can already schedule you to work 12 days in a row. They just schedule you to work Monday through Saturday one week and, the very next week, schedule you on Sunday through Saturday. That’s 12 days — all perfectly legal because it’s only six days in each of those two calendar weeks.

No doubt Sen. Grothman and Rep. Born are aware of this quirk which seems to skew the intent of the law: one day of rest in every seven. A Jan. 3 Huffington Post article interviewing Sen. Grothman noted the 12-day possibility and quoted the senator as calling the current law, (275.01) as implied, “a little goofy.”

The senator also seems to feel his proposal would help workers. An email from Sen. Grothman to his colleagues in the Legislature, also reported in the Huffington Post, said the change would give “an employee more say in their overtime work opportunities.”

However, it wasn’t workers who approached Sen. Grothman requesting a change; it was employers. And note that any statute change would not affect union employees, who have other means of protecting their scheduled hours. That means the proposal would most directly affect low-wage workers with fewer skills and more fear of losing a job if they protest about scheduling.

Sen. Grothman has said he believes his proposed change would help workers and allow them to volunteer for the extra hours without any coercion by employers. However, WLUK-TV, Fox 11 (Jan. 13) quoted Stephanie Bloomingdale, secretary-treasurer of the Wisconsin AFL-CIO, as saying the change “could allow bosses to pressure workers to continue working every single day without rest.”

This appears to be true. If the law is changed as proposed, an employee could technically “volunteer” to work day after day after day, with no day off. Ever.

Also, the question of how voluntary this would be must be addressed. Wouldn’t low-wage, low-skill employees become easy prey to pressure from employers to work more hours? Yes, they would get overtime pay — if they worked more than 40 hours in one calendar week. Remember the 12-day-straight loophole? A schedule of up to 12 straight days could easily be set up that would skirt paying overtime.

In the Bible, even slaves and beasts of burden received one day of rest in every seven (Dt 5:14). It seems that Wisconsin should at least be able to do what the nomadic tribes of ancient Israel did for workers.

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