Employees inside the biggest computer software and Internet companies engage in a cruel and unusual ritual before every major trade show and conference. It’s called the “Death March.” The name refers to the all-nighters and short weekends that precede the release of a major product or piece of software.
“The Death March is a time-honored tradition. Word comes down from on high that this project must be delivered now. Consequences for non-completion include a decreased valuation, poor PR, lost face, and general humiliation,” says Nicholas Winterhalter, engineering director for Parlez.com and a veteran of Rocket Network, an online music company. “It can also mean many hours of lost sleep, days on end spent at work, and a decrease in productivity — but it’s certainly character-building.”
Some companies offer fresh socks, clean cots, and extra toothbrushes to help engineering martyrs make it through the Death March nights. It’s rumored that Macromedia has an annual take-out budget of $750,000 to cover Death March expenses. Even small companies often have slush funds for late-night pizzas and Coke. Others go upscale.
“During our last big deadline, I realized it was getting late and no one had eaten,” says Emilie Sommerhoff, editor in chief of goosewing.com, a nonlinear textbook company based in Providence, Rhode Island. “So I ordered out sushi and beer, and sent email to top management outlining what I’d done and why I thought it was a necessary expenditure. They agreed and my people got fed. I like to think of sushi and beer as motivational tools when all else fails.”
One of the most common complaints heard among dotcom workers — Death Marchers and non-Death Marchers alike — is that work consumes too much life. At a time when 60-hour weeks are not considered unreasonable, it’s important to know your rights as an employee. And fight for them.
The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), aka the Wages and Hours Bill, calls for federal regulation of wages and hours. Passed in 1938, this law established the minimum wage, the 40-hour work week, and the concept of overtime — with its pay rate of time and a half for every hour worked past 40.
The FLSA breaks down employees into two categories: nonexempt workers, who are entitled to time-and-a-half pay; and exempt workers, who are not. In general, most salaried employees are exempt from the FLSA, particularly if they enjoy “creative autonomy” in their work.
“In a lot of cases, there is no clear definition of the differences between exempt and nonexempt employees,” says Peter Panken, a partner at the New York City law firm of Epstein, Baker, and Green, and a management-side employment specialist. “If you supervise or manage others, then you’re probably exempt. I always advise employers to make an explicit definition for their employees, because misclassification can cause an employee to sue for up to three years’ worth of back overtime.”
In some dotcoms, salaried employees such as customer-service workers — who must do their work on-site during specific hours — are classified as exempt even though they do not enjoy creative autonomy. According to the Washington Alliance of Technology Workers, or WashTech — an alliance of technology workers in Washington state — Amazon.com classified its customer-service employees as exempt until the spring of 1998. Once it was pointed out that such employees do not meet the specifications of exemption, Amazon.com changed its policy. This example illustrates the fact that sometimes even the biggest companies can classify jobs incorrectly, so it’s important to know your rights.
“Employers will sometimes make the mistake of declaring a nonexempt employee as exempt, and then the company will not keep track of that person’s hours,” Panken says. “If a suit is filed for back overtime, the company will be at the mercy of the employee to determine how many overtime hours were worked.”
Section 18 of the FLSA contains an interesting clause stating that computer operators are exempt if they make at least $27.63 an hour. That number seems reasonable for engineers and IT gurus in today’s economy. But even those earning less than $27.63 an hour may be regarded as exempt by employers trying to tweak the system to their advantage. For example, a $28-an-hour wage translates into a yearly salary of around $60,000 a year. But many dotcom techies work between 60 and 80 hours a week. The average yearly salary for IT help desk managers — about $75,000 — divided by a 60-hour week, equals closer to $20 an hour — a nonexempt wage.
“The exemption for computer operators is generally interpreted only to mean computer programmers,” Panken says. “This rule doesn’t apply to Web designers, testers, and technical writers.”
The FLSA doesn’t place any limits on the number of working hours a company can demand each week. Thus, you should clarify whether a position is exempt or nonexempt before accepting a position at a company that will likely expect 60- or 80-hour work weeks. Your family will thank you for it.
“Sometimes the pressure to participate in Death Marches doesn’t come from management, it comes from your peers,” Winterhalter says. “So you should investigate corporate culture regarding long hours and free time before accepting a job.”
III. Death March: The Long Hours of the New Economy