(Photo: Colourbox)

Working in banks for free

Bank employees in Norway, Sweden and Ireland don’t make use of all their accrued comp time.

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Employees who have worked overtime without extra pay and have the right take an equivalent amount of time off, in other words use their ‘comp time’, often end up simply working overtime for free. They don’t take the time off that they have coming to them.

“The most remarkable thing I discovered was that the compensatory time-off system doesn’t work as it is supposed to,” says Heidi Nicolaisen, a researcher at the Institute for Labour and Social Research (Fafo).

She has studied bank employees and their work, which is characterised by performance and awards that are largely linked to individual achievements. As a result staffs tend to steer their own working hours more in accordance with results than the working hour regulations.

Nicolaisen has looked into ways that work hour regulations have changed in the past 30 years with a focus on amendments in the overtime rules from 1990 to 2008. Compensation time off has to a large degree gained headway at the expense of overtime pay.

“The argument for the use of compensation time is that it provides flexibility and is more family-friendly. Yet in my studies I’ve seen that compensation in the form of time off differs from overtime pay by being more vulnerable; it’s postponed and in many cases never used.”

“A big advantage with overtime pay is that it can’t just vanish, at least it gets paid,” says Nicolaisen, who is presenting her doctoral thesis at the University of Oslo on 25 November this year.

Several fields

Banks have gone through several rounds of downsizing and cost cuts in recent decades. The trend toward little customer contact or none at all is beginning to turn. Mounting competition among banks forces them to see what they can do to attract new customers and retain their old ones.

Nicolaisen explains that the banks are becoming customer oriented again, and that can lead to more pressure on them to extend opening hours and become more flexible. As an example she mentions the bank DnB NOR which has started a 24-hour telephone service. This means somebody is on the job at all hours to take calls from customers.

“Bank jobs aren’t the only ones where comp time works like this. There’s reason to believe that it happens in all fields of work where salaries are result oriented and goal-regulated. If you have a salary that is based on performance it’s hard to take time off work unless the goal has been achieved, the job is done. Shop stewards or trade union representatives say that employees find it hard to take the time off because they know this will increase the work load of their colleagues on the job,” says Nicolaisen.

Small variations

Regulations in the three countries are not identical but Sweden and Norway a lot alike.

“In Ireland they have the same practice with use of comp time, but it’s not regulated by law. The difference between the three countries isn’t that great. Contrary to what you’d expect, bank employees in Ireland have shorter working hours than in the two Scandinavian countries. In Ireland their work week is 35 hours, in Norway 37.5 and in Sweden they have one hour a week more than us,” says the researcher.

Nicolaisen has studied all the wage contracts for the bank trade in the course of nearly two decades. The traditional regulations for normal working hours are still intact, but new rules have been negotiated for unfavourable working hours and for compensatory time-off.

She has interviewed union representatives in a number of banks to find out whether or how the regulations are followed.

“Reforms that would appear to be an advantage for the employees can have unexpected consequences as work cultures evolve. I haven’t seen how much employees have worked without taking overtime pay or comparable time off. More research would be needed to quantify that. But I can confirm it’s happening,” says Heidi Nicolaisen.

Translated by: Glenn Ostling

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