As the boundary between business and personal time continues to blur, labor experts predict that workers this year will find themselves grappling with how to focus that line in a sharper divide.
Technology advances allow - sometimes require - work to be done at all hours via computer, cell phone and pager, interrupting social events and family gatherings. More international companies also create wide-ranging hours and demands for some workers. The office of the 21st century can seem omnipresent.
But labor leaders, special-interest groups and others have begun fighting to keep work lives from oozing into private ones. They hope to make progress on the issue during this national election year and shift a trend that has been years in the making.
"Every other industrial country in the civilized world understands these issues and is taking major steps to insure that people have time for life," said John de Graaf, national coordinator for Take Back Your Time, a grass-roots organization. Its self-appointed mission is to help create a better work-life balance.
Overworking can lead to problems in areas such as health and relationships, de Graaf said. His group sponsored the first Take Back Your Time Day on Oct. 24.
More than half of 500 people surveyed by a Washington polling firm said they would prefer to work a four-day week for four days' pay, according the Center for a New American Dream, a liberal-leaning interest group in Takoma Park that commissioned the poll. Three out of five respondents said they felt pressure to work too much, and about four out of five said they wish they had more time to spend with family. The issue could become more politically prominent this year as the U.S. Labor Department may alter rules that govern who is entitled to overtime pay. That may result in more people working longer hours, without additional pay.
Under proposed changes, anyone earning $22,100 a year or less would automatically qualify for overtime. The increase, up from the current threshold of $8,060 a year, would be the largest since the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938.
But salaried workers earning more than $65,000 a year would be exempt from overtime pay if they meet one of several job descriptions, such as performing office and nonmanual work. And workers earning between $22,100 and $65,000 a year might be exempt from earning overtime pay, depending on the duties they perform.
The Labor Department said the proposed changes would qualify an estimated 1.3 million low-income workers for overtime pay while making about 640,000 white-collar workers ineligible.
The Bush administration and supporters of the changes say they would clarify confusing labor rules. But labor leaders who oppose the plan estimate that as many as 8 million workers could lose overtime rights, depending on how the new rules are interpreted.
Suzanne Ffolkes, a spokeswoman for the AFL-CIO, said the group's main concern is that employers could reclassify their workers as salaried, making it easier for them to work longer without extra pay. "They could put in more than 40 hours a week without being duly compensated," Ffolkes said. "That means less time with their families, and they're not being rewarded for putting in more hours on the job."
"I do think that people are trying to figure out how to ... [be] away from work and not checking ... e-mails or getting phone calls on the weekends," said John A. Challenger, chief executive of the Chicago outplacement firm, Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc.
Fair Labor Standards Act establishes a 40-hour workweek.
U.S. labor force grows to more than 100 million workers for first time since the Bureau of Labor Statistics began tracking it.
The balance between work and life comes into more focus as the U.S. Labor Department looks at new rules on overtime, and groups such as Take Back Your Time pursue the matter as an election issue.