Progressive Nonprofits That Oppose the New Overtime Rules for Low-Income Workers Are Hypocrites

Ethan Miller May 23, 2016

(Tom Blackwell / Flickr)

Last week, Vice Pres­i­dent Joe Biden and Sec­re­tary of Labor Tom Perez revealed the final ver­sion of the Oba­ma administration’s updat­ed over­time rules to great fan­fare. The new reg­u­la­tions are an update to out­dat­ed rules that spec­i­fy which salaried employ­ees are (or are not) legal­ly enti­tled for time-and-a-half over­time pay when they work more than 40 hours per week.

The Labor Depart­ment, unions and advo­ca­cy groups have been focused on how the rule update will impact those who work in the pri­vate sec­tor, main­ly fast food or retail store man­agers who are salaried but are often expect­ed to work 60 or 70 hours a week with­out any more pay. But in the week since the rule was released, many of my friends and acquain­tances who work for pro­gres­sive non­prof­its have been ask­ing what this change will mean for them.

Many of these friends have worked at jus­tice-ori­ent­ed, pro­gres­sive non­prof­its which depend on the work of can­vassers, orga­niz­ers and cam­paign­ers who are told that their good work more than makes up for the low pay they receive. These orga­ni­za­tions exploit the pas­sion and dri­ve of their staff to stretch their bud­gets past a rea­son­able lev­el, reg­u­lar­ly requir­ing staff to work over­time with­out any extra com­pen­sa­tion. Some­times, these orga­ni­za­tions oppose staff efforts to union­ize or oth­er­wise improve work­ing con­di­tions, despite pro­fessed com­mit­ments to eco­nom­ic jus­tice and work­ers’ rights.

One such out­fit, the U.S. Pub­lic Inter­est Research Group (PIRG for short) has even gone so far as to oppose the new over­time rule, call­ing it unre­al­is­tic” for non-prof­it, cause-ori­ent­ed orga­ni­za­tions” and promis­ing to pur­sue all avail­able options to pre­vent this rule from dimin­ish­ing our abil­i­ty to advo­cate for the pub­lic inter­est.” From their point of view, yes, the require­ment to pay their staff extra for over­time would pose a prob­lem. It will no longer be pos­si­ble for them to pay $26,000 a year to employ­ees work­ing 10 – 12 hour days.

But the real prob­lem start­ed much earlier. 

PIRG has built an orga­ni­za­tion that revolves around under­paid, over­worked employ­ees — a struc­ture that is sim­ply not sus­tain­able for the staff or the long-term health of the orga­ni­za­tion. (They have also opposed staff union­iza­tion efforts in the past.) So while the new over­time rules are poised to force change at PIRG and sim­i­lar orga­ni­za­tions, the need for a sig­nif­i­cant shift has exist­ed for quite some time.

These prac­tices aren’t unique to just PIRG — they’re per­va­sive through­out the pro­gres­sive move­ment. Because so many peo­ple get their first orga­niz­ing jobs through PIRG and affil­i­at­ed orga­ni­za­tions like Green­Corps and Envi­ron­ment Amer­i­ca, those who don’t burn out are taught that the self-sac­ri­fi­cial mod­el is the only way to suc­cess­ful­ly staff a cause-ori­ent­ed non­prof­it. And when these orga­niz­ers move on to man­age staff and lead orga­ni­za­tions across the pro­gres­sive world, these prac­tices come with them.

This is not a crit­i­cism of any indi­vid­ual PIRG alum­ni or lead­ers; the prob­lem is this orga­ni­za­tion­al mod­el as a whole, in which orga­niz­ers are taught to pri­or­i­tize their work over their own needs and desires to have a bal­anced life. This is a sys­tem in which entry-lev­el staff are paid just above the cur­rent over­time salary thresh­old of $23,660 in order to avoid eco­nom­ic oblig­a­tions when these staff are reg­u­lar­ly asked to work more than 40 hours a week. The orga­niz­ers who have the will­ing­ness and abil­i­ty to put in those extra hours are fre­quent­ly pro­mot­ed over those who have out­side oblig­a­tions that pre­vent them from spend­ing every wak­ing minute at work, adding even more pres­sure for staff to overwork.

But this mod­el doesn’t have to be the norm in the pro­gres­sive com­mu­ni­ty. I’m lucky to work at a labor-focused non­prof­it that pays all of our staff a decent salary, where we are mem­bers of a union that works with man­age­ment to build bet­ter struc­tures for work-life bal­ance and resolve dis­agree­ments togeth­er at the bar­gain­ing table.

As we seek to dis­rupt the sys­tems of cor­po­rate greed, envi­ron­men­tal degra­da­tion, racism and patri­archy through the work we do, we must look at our own orga­ni­za­tions and struc­tures and dis­man­tle those struc­tures for our­selves first. Yes, this will require more than a small change in pol­i­cy for many non­prof­its, but the long-term ben­e­fits of leav­ing the old, exploita­tive staffing mod­el behind will ulti­mate­ly ben­e­fit the staff of these orga­ni­za­tions, the orga­ni­za­tions them­selves, and the peo­ple whose lives they seek to improve.

Ethan Miller is an orga­niz­er, activist and com­mu­ni­ca­tor in Wash­ing­ton, D.C. You can fol­low him on Twit­ter @ESMiller59.
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