The Right Way to Ask for Overtime Pay

The overtime pay law is clear: under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act, any hours worked beyond 40 a week are paid at one and a half times the normal rate.

overtime pay

Some companies are fine with that. Paying overtime can be cheaper than adding an employee who would be eligible for benefits.

For other businesses, overtime pay is carefully rationed lest it become a budget-busting expense.

So how to ask for overtime pay when your employer falls into the latter category? Here are six strategies to consider.

1. Get overtime pay approved in advance

This sounds pretty basic, given that many businesses require pre-approval of overtime. Despite policies, managers at these same businesses often experience sticker shock when time cards are turned in.

In some cases, unexpected overtime is legit—things happen at the last minute. In many others, though, not getting approval to work overtime is manipulative and passive aggressive. After all, under federal law, the manager can’t say “no” after the deed is done.

Even in businesses with predictable, seasonal overtime loads—think, accounting firms in the spring and retailers in December—it’s still best to let the boss know if you’re headed toward overtime.

2. Make it clear why you’re asking for overtime pay

Most people more willingly, or at least less grudgingly, accept bad news when there’s a good reason for it. This definitely applies in the case of overtime pay.

Did a true emergency come up? Were you covering for someone who was out sick or on vacation? Don’t assume the boss is aware of what might seem obvious to you. Even all-seeing supervisors sometimes miss things.

3. Offer overtime alternatives

Most managers respond better when they’re given a choice.  Brainstorm creative ways to solve your potential overtime problem without throwing a money at it.

Look closely at your schedule and see if there are non-essential meetings you could to miss in order to finish a pressing project. If the work can push into the next pay week, suggest doing so. If it can’t and you’re oh-so-close to completion, come up with the number of hours you’ll need to finish and suggest that figure to the boss.

4. Find ways to whittle the amount of overtime pay needed

This is easier if you get jammed up at the start of the work week and can make up time by taking longer lunches or leaving early. Just make sure you clear it with a boss. Beware, too, that once a manager starts looking around on Friday and figuring out that half the staff has OT’ed itself into a long weekend, this will no longer be a solution.

Cutting down or eliminating out-of-office work is another great way to trim the overtime total. If you’re in a habit of responding to emails during the off hours—court decisions have held that anything beyond a minimal amount is indeed work time—ask the boss if it’s OK to ignore messages for the rest of the pay period.

Warning: these measures won’t work in California, Alaska, Nevada or anywhere else where overtime is calculated on a daily and not a weekly basis. Also, be aware of any collective bargaining agreements that might cover overtime at your workplace. FLSA doesn’t require automatic overtime for weekends and holidays, but some union contracts do.

5. Suggest cheaper overtime alternatives

The higher up the pay ladder you get, the easier it will be to offload part of the workload to a less-expensive source.

If you’re working on a huge report or important presentation, suggest that someone lower on the pay scale handle the phones or external or internal customer support. It might even be more economical to hire a temp to take over some duties than to pay the overtime.

6. Look for ways to avoid a repeat

Bosses are amazingly forgiving about a one-time lapse. They are not so understanding about frequent occurrences.

If you find yourself repeatedly needing to ask for overtime, ask why. Could more cross-training in your department help? Could repetitive, mundane tasks be automated, and, if the company lacks the expertise to do so, would a one-time investment be worth the savings down the road?

It’s not always easy to ask for overtime pay, particularly if your company has made it clear that working overtime is to be avoided at all costs. Making sure you communicate with the boss when you’re in danger of working extra hours, proposing solutions to avoid going over 40 and suggesting ways to avoid repeat occurrences are steps you can take to give yourself a better chance of hearing “yes” if you do need to ask.

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