For the last three years, I worked as a manager at a local fast-food chain in Kirkland. Since I was a front-line manager, the company considered me “overtime exempt,” meaning I didn’t get paid extra if I worked over 40 hours a week.
My salary was $49k a year, so if I worked 40 hours a week, my hourly pay would be about $23.50. That’s still too low to afford a decent apartment in a housing market like Kirkland without cramming my wife and myself into a studio, so we lived about an hour away. I thought we could make it work.
But the restaurant was constantly shorthanded, and as the general manager, I was required to take on extra hours. When anything went wrong, I had to cover the shift myself. I ended up working up to 65 hours a week, plus commuting for about 10 hours a week because I couldn’t afford to live in Kirkland. When it came down to it, most weeks I ended up making less per hour than the employees I managed.
When companies classify workers like me as “overtime exempt,” they’re basically getting free labor. There were days where I’d spend 14 hours at work instead of 10 because my night cook got sick. I ran through that restaurant like a hurricane, forgetting to take breaks, forgetting to eat even when there was food right in front of me. Someone had to pick up the slack, and since I was the manager, it fell to me. But it affected the entire staff — constantly working unpaid overtime put me at odds with my crew and made me a worse manager.
My health declined significantly. I was constantly stressed. I wasn’t getting nearly enough sleep. When my mental health started declining and I became depressed, my wife told me, “Quit your job. I don’t want you to kill yourself.” And I did.
I was able to quit because I don’t have kids to take care of, or other obligations that forced me to stay in a job that wasn’t working for me. But I’ve worked in food and hospitality for a long time, and I’ve seen other salaried workers taken advantage of in the same way.
Right now, our overtime laws are so outdated that companies can pay workers less than the minimum wage just by claiming we’re “overtime exempt.” It’s absurd. No one should have to work 65 hours a week and get paid for 40.
We need to update our overtime laws in Washington to reflect the reality for workers like me. That’s why we’re asking Washington State Labor & Industries to expand overtime rights for salaried workers. But they need to hear from more workers to make their decision — so if you’re not getting paid overtime, can you click here and take five minutes to share your experiences?
— Chris, former fast food manager