A brief history of overtime in the United States

With the U.S. seeing new overtime rules come into effect this December, it’s a good time to reflect on why these even exists in the first place, and how we’ve come to this point. Recent headlines have splashed the issue of Americans working longer hours than ever before, compared to 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 results 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.


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Here are the 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, although with plenty of breaks in between. When taking the long breaks into consideration, the average work day was roughly eight hours.

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

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, but many employers refused to concede. Celebrations at the time of the law’s passage quickly turned into rebellious rioting in what became known as May Day.

The first successful law: In 1869, President Ulysses S. Grant issued a proclamation guaranteeing an eight-hour workday 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 works 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, and in 1916 Congress passed the Adamson Act, which 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.

Passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act and the advent of overtime: In 1938 Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), which limited the work-week to 44 hours, which Congress amended to 40 hours two years later. 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.

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 TimeAttend) that not only tracks the hours, but categorizes what tasks people are focusing on. It’s also ideal to find 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 reasonswhy people may be working overtime hours. For more information on how we can help you navigate the changes and impact of the new overtime pay rules, contact us.


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Jon Burns
Jon Burns
Jon is a Product Manager at Replicon who leads the Global Compliance Team. Replicon is an industry leader in global compliance and has a dedicated team which pro-actively monitors international labor regulations for ensuring proper adherence with specific country rule requirements.
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