income tax planning

Are accountants exempt from overtime pay?


  Working too many hours during busy season with the Big 4

What is the biggest secret of your Big four tax accountant or CPA service? Ask a new hire and they can fill you in on the extensive amount of unpaid overtime hours they are expected to work.

I�m sure this question has crossed the mind of any accountant whether CA, CPA, CMA, CGA or any other acronym you can think of. These professionals are used to putting in late hours and long work days, but as often is the case they are not compensated fairly for their efforts.

Here is the situation that occurs frequently in the United States, Canada and around the world. New business grads in search of lucrative careers and fruitful opportunities are often enticed into the wonderful world of big 4 accounting with Deloitte, Price Waterhouse Coopers (PWC), Ernst & Young or KPMG. The job of course offers great benefits, an excellent work environment, outstanding social events and endless future opportunities. So why would anyone have any complaints. Well, the downside that doesn�t usually make the brochure is the hours and hours of overtime that are expected of any new hire. This could mean anywhere from 10 to 20 hour days. There are also many cases of all nighters when an audit deadline approaches (thought you were done with those in University? Think again).

Well this can�t be all bad, surely the keen new accountants are paid fairly for the ample overtime they put in that makes the companies and the partners millions. Right? In reality this rarely happens. Don�t get me wrong, many firms have been known to provide extra time off in lieu of overtime pay for their accountants, but the vast majority of accounting employees never see any overtime pay at all.

New hires are generally paid a salary and are expected to put in extra hours near the end of important jobs or during busy season to assist with audits and taxes. With long hours and no overtime pay this can mean very low wages and in some cases the compensation for hours worked may fall below minimum wage. Despite this, almost every additional hour worked by the front line accountants is billed to the client at exuberant rates. What does this mean? The partners line their pockets while the front line accountants make peanuts.

So why does this go on and how can it continue? Well, it seems the industry and the new accountant hires allow it to continue by not looking for avenues to contend this practice. The partners justify this treatment because they too were subjected to it when they joined the firm and they aren�t likely to want to stop this treatment now that they are at the top of the food chain. Some question this practice and highlight that if the partners can justify this treatment of their employees, what else might they be willing to justify? Considering the many ethical responsibilities of an accountant, you would think the paying liveable wages would be easily accepted. However, this is not the case and in a post Enron world that has all eyes on the Big 4 accounting firms, this could add more pressure for standard reform.

There has been a couple of instances of group action and some small decisions have been made through the court system to compensate accountants and other employees for the overtime they should have been paid in the first place. Despite this, the practice continues and as long as new graduates accept that they are worth less than minimum wage between January and April then the practice will continue.


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