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Recently, I spoke with a young professional about how human resources defines employees as “full-time exempt” and “nonexempt,” and the definition’s application to time and attendance. The terms derive from the Fair Labor Standards Act (Pub.L. 75–718, ch. 676, 52 Stat. 1060), which created the right to a minimum wage, overtime pay for working more than 40 hours a week and provisions related to child labor. The concepts were first introduced in 1933 via the National Industrial Recovery Act and President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Reemployment Agreement. FLSA was signed by President Roosevelt in 1938. “Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938: Maximum Struggle for a Minimum Wage” by Jonathan Grossman provides a historical prospective. Read it here.

Exempt and nonexempt are classifications of employees based upon duties, responsibilities and pay thresholds as defined by FLSA. Essentially, the words categorize executive, professional or administrative salaried (exempt) and those paid a salary for a fixed number of hours or an hourly wage (nonexempt). For example, full-time exempt (paid a set amount) employees may work more than 40 hours a week and work outside the 9 a.m.–5 p.m. workday without additional compensation. Exempt employees are responsible for getting the job done, even if it may mean attending to tasks in the evening and on weekends.

Full-time nonexempt (paid by the hour) employees typically work 40 hours within an established work schedule, track time worked by hour and are paid overtime (i.e., time and a half) for hours exceeding 40. In addition to the duties test, if an employee is salaried but earns less than $684 per week, or $35,568 per year, they would be classified as nonexempt and eligible for overtime pay.

After my clinical monologue, the young professional asked, “How do you balance work and life? I have obligations to my family, and sometimes I am not available to work.” The question gave me great pause. Had my child been in the room, they would have sharply, emphatically and accurately stated, “Don’t ask her! She doesn’t know how to rest!” Sheepishly, I must concur.

Working in higher education my entire career, I’ve long since accepted that my work doesn’t fit neatly into the boundaries of 9 a.m.–5 p.m. As an art faculty member, I’ve taught evening classes, watched a kiln burn for 24 hours straight with colleagues, responded to emails from struggling students at midnight and graded through the night to make deadlines. As a museum director, I’ve worked countless weekends and nights conducting research, hosted receptions and events in the evenings, and responded to building alarms and roof leaks in the middle of the night. As a senior administrator, I’ve taken calls from board members at 10 p.m. and 5 a.m., answered calls from a president at 3:30 a.m., written a campus email about the death of a student on Thanksgiving morning and responded to frozen pipes bursting on Christmas Eve and Day.

My kid is right; separating work and life has eluded me. Years ago, I may have answered this young professional’s question with, “There is no work-life balance in higher education. This is what you signed up for—working more than 40 hours is what it takes.” But I didn’t say it, because doing so would make me an unhelpful, inconsiderate, morally corrupt asshole who thinks others should suffer and struggle just because they did. Ultimately, my answer to her was this: you’ll need to find your way and decide how much you can give to work and if you can provide what it takes to do the job at that particular stage in your life. You’ll need to compartmentalize and be disciplined, yet flexible.

She then asked, “How do you spend your time?” I answered, at this stage of my life, I wake up each morning, have coffee and do things for myself. Sometimes, though, I need to wake up early to do work for the university, so I do, but not every early morning. On weekdays, I go into the office and work until usually 7 or 8 p.m. I often stop for lunch, chat with colleagues or occasionally take a walk. When I get home, I have dinner, write, read and maybe watch a little television. If there is an urgent work project or I need to respond to an email, I do it, but I always try to go to bed between 10 and 11 p.m. On weekends, I catch up on email while I’m doing laundry. I write or create art in the morning when my family sleeps in. I go into the office or work from home for several hours (sometimes more if there is a deadline), but I find time to enjoy my relationships and other things for myself. I do wish I did this more. This is my life now as an administrator; it’s been different at various stages of my life.

I try to create a rhythm to my life. I wouldn’t call it a balance as much as I would call it a way to preserve self. Everyone is different. In a lifetime, you’ll have many identities and roles and responsibilities; being a higher education employee is just one. With every life stage, things will necessarily change as they must. When my child was a baby, I worked on my artwork while they napped or after they went to bed. For a period, when my job and family were all-consuming, I didn’t make art or write articles. I chose what I thought was important at that moment in time. Life and work are not an either-or existence, but a both-and. I often remind myself: never lose yourself to work, but be devoted, reliable, responsive and attentive to work. Leave time and space for all parts of yourself as much as you can.

Even with how I have chosen to integrate work and life now, I also think about the recent debates and cases made for a shorter workweek or other alternatives for less time spent working to enable greater happiness, healthier minds and bodies, and increased productivity. The pandemic certainly created a greater need for the discussion when it disrupted the ways in which we looked at how we spend time. Making changes to the way we think about work may be beneficial and necessary. Bryan Lufkin and Jessica Mudditt wrote about the topic in their piece for the BBC titled “The case for a shorter work week.” We should always be open to thinking about how to do things better and with more humanism—wasn’t that the impetus for FLSA in the first place?

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