With workweeks in the IT world stretching past the nightly Letterman and Leno shows and into the weekend’s Saturday Night Live, it’s no wonder that overtime compensation is a hot topic among IT workers. But while you may feel like you’re not being fairly rewarded for your round-the-clock devotion, in many cases it’s your salaried position that’s to blame.

In this article, we’ll examine how your employment status can determine your overtime compensation, as well as TechRepublic survey results that show how overtime is being handled in the IT industry.

IT workers and the standard workweek

Over 20 years ago, in “The Fair Labor Standards Act: Changes of four decades,” which appeared in the July 1979 issue of Monthly Labor Review, Peyton Elder and Heidi Miller defined a standard workweek as precisely 40 hours. That workweek standard still holds today—as anything above this figure is generally considered overtime. Whether employees are compensated for overtime or not depends greatly on their work environment.

In his article “How hours of work affect occupational earnings” in the October 1998 issue of Monthly Labor Review, Daniel Hecker emphasizes that most managerial and professional workers receive a set weekly or yearly salary based on a 35- to 40-hour workweek. Employers are not required by the Fair Labor Standards Act to pay these salaried workers extra for hours beyond 40 or to pay an increased rate if they do offer an overtime wage. It is often understood that an extended workweek is simply part of the job. The distinction between hourly and salaried is a key factor in whether workers, IT or otherwise, are compensated for overtime work. Therefore, the blame for your lack of compensation could very well be placed on the fact that you draw a salary instead of an hourly wage.

Contracts and overtime: Get it in writing

While a worker’s classification as hourly or salaried makes a big difference in overtime compensation, a clearly defined contract is also another determining factor for overtime pay. Jeff Dray, a senior data support engineer in the UK and a TechRepublic contributor, says his contract clearly states his working hours and “he sticks to that.” “My time is very valuable,” Jeff says, “and fortunately the company appreciates that.”

As a contractual employee, it is up to you to make sure that you are compensated fairly for your hours, and that includes overtime. You can either limit your hours, as Jeff Dray does, or determine a rate for any overtime hours you work.

How overworked and undercompensated are we?

Using data collected in 1997 by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Hecker analyzed the average number of weekly work hours for computer systems analysts and scientists. He found the average for men was 43 and the average for women was 42. This compares to 52 and 49 for male and female physicians, respectively. In a recent survey of over 3,900 TechRepublic members, 50 percent reported working 40 to 50 hours per week, and 31 percent reported working between 50 and 60 hours (see Figure A).

Figure A
Only 8 percent of the over 3,900 TechRepublic members who responded work less than 40 hours each week.

When we asked the same group of TechRepublic members how they are most often compensated for overtime work, a little more than half (56 percent) said they are not compensated at all (see Figure B).

Figure B

Those that reported that they were compensated said they were either paid their normal hourly wage, an overtime hourly wage, or given comp time.

What does this mean for you?

The bottom line is that overtime compensation must be decided on a case-by-case basis. If you’re an hourly worker, you must be paid for every hour you work, whether it’s overtime or not. If you have a contractual job, your overtime compensation—if you choose to work overtime hours—should be clearly defined within the contract.

But if you’re a salaried employee who was told that you would have to work 45 hours a week when you were hired, you’re stuck with unpaid overtime and should not complain. You knew the conditions of employment when you signed up, and now you must live with them. On the other hand, if you’re a salaried worker who is being required to work 20 hours more per week than was discussed during your job interview, it may be time to move on.