A Brief History of Overtime in the United States

With the U.S. seeing new overtime rules come into effect this October 2022, it’s a good time to reflect on why these even exist in the first place and how we’ve come to this point. Recent headlines have splashed news of Americans working longer hours than ever before and more than anyone else in the industrialized world.

Despite the well-documented negative effects of excessive overtime on our mental and physical health, working around the clock has become the norm instead of the exception.

In the U.S., the concept of “overtime,” as we understand it, existed long before the word came into being. When the U.S. began tracking workers’ hours in 1890, it found the average workweek for a full-time manufacturing worker to be a staggering 100 hours! The inception of overtime resulted from the tireless efforts of labor organizations, like the National Labor Union and the Knights of Labor, who simply wanted to curtail the long working hours of the average American worker.evolution-of-overtime

Key Phases in the Evolution of Overtime in the United States

The Pre-overtime Period

Agriculture workers in the UK in the 1600s and 1700s generally labored from sunrise till sundown, seven days a week, though with plenty of breaks in between. When taking the long breaks into consideration, the average work day was roughly eight hours. Later, in the 1800s, many American workers generally labored seventy hours per week, and the length of the workweek evolved as an important political issue.

The Industrial Revolution

As manufacturing technology began to transform our society, it also transformed our working hours. When the Industrial Revolution reached the U.S. in the early 1800s, it brought with it a whole new concept of a daily work schedule. The advent of industrialization demanded large factories run around the clock, and employees (including children) were expected to put in ten to 16 hours of work, six days a week!


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The Beginnings of the Eight-Hour Workweek

On the heels of major working-hour reforms in Europe and Australia, Illinois became the first state to pass a law mandating an eight-hour workday in 1867. Since many employers refused to concede, a massive strike erupted in Chicago. Celebrations at the time of the law’s passage quickly turned into rebellious rioting on what became known as May Day.

The First Successful Law

In 1869, President Ulysses S. Grant issued a proclamation guaranteeing an eight-hour workday and a stable wage for government workers, and in the decades that followed, organizations such as the National Labor Union and the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions demanded that this eight-hour privilege be extended to the private sector. Grant’s proclamation was a call to action for private sector workers to fight for the same rights being given to public sector employees.

Private Sector Inclusion

In 1906, two large firms in the printing industry became the first U.S. companies to institute an eight-hour workday. In 1916, the Congress passed the Adamson Act, a federal law that established an eight-hour workday for interstate railroad workers. In 1926, Ford Motor Company adopted a five-day, 40-hour workweek after already adopting an eight-hour day a decade before.overtime-law

Passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act and the Advent of Overtime

In 1938, the Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), which limited the work week to 44 hours. Later, the Congress amended the FLSA act to 40 hours work-week two years later. Subsequently, Australia, Canada, and the UK adopted the standard practice of a 40-hour work week. In addition to creating the National Minimum Wage, new employee classifications and other labor requirements, the passage of the FLSA introduced the concept of overtime, guaranteeing all non-exempt workers time-and-a-half pay for all hours worked beyond 40 per week.

Today, overtime compliance is managed by both federal and state branches of the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL). When employees aren’t paid overtime wages for hours worked, they have the right to file an unpaid overtime claim with their local Department of Labor branch.


Overtime has come a long way in the United States, and with the U.S. Department of Labor’s new rules, an additional 4.2 million people will be eligible for time-and-a-half pay. To make sure that all employees are maintaining a healthy work-life balance, it’s important to use an automated timekeeping system (such as Replicon Time Attendance) that not only tracks hours but categorizes what tasks people are focusing on. It’s also ideal to find a solution that can be accessed on a mobile device and integrates with payroll to make the process as simple as possible.

Check out our earlier blog posts to find out how the new rules could affect your business costs and the five reasons why people may be working overtime hours. For more information on how we can help you navigate the new overtime pay rules, contact us.


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Sathya Gajendran


Sathya Gajendran

Sathya is an Assistant Content Marketing Manager at Replicon. She is a tech enthusiast who loves to learn about new, emerging technologies. Replicon provides award-winning products that make it easy to manage your workforce. With complete solution sets for client billing, project costing, and time and attendance management, Replicon enables the capture, administration, and optimization of your most underutilized and important asset: time.

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