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The Jewish Ethicist  - Billable Hours

The Jewish Ethicist - Billable Hours

Be careful to record only the hours you actually work.


Q. I work by the hour, but I'm easily distractible. Do I have to deduct idle time from my time log?

A. Jewish law and tradition put great emphasis on the work ethic of employees. A worker is expected to give his or her full effort to the employer during the time at work. This ideal is exemplified in a remarkable story in the Talmud about Abba Chilkia: (1)

When the world needed rain, the rabbis would send to him and he would seek mercy, and the rains would come. One time the world needed rain, and the rabbis sent a pair of rabbis to him so that he could seek mercy and bring rain. They went to his house but did not find him; they went to the field and found him hoeing. They greeted him but he didn't [even] turn to them.

The Talmud then tells that when he arrived home, he went up to the roof with his wife where both prayed secretly, so that no one would know that it was his prayers that brought the rain; then the rain began to fall.

They told him: We know that the rain is falling because of you. But please explain something strange to us: Why, when we greeted you, didn't you turn to us? He replied, I was working as a day laborer, and I said to myself, I must not slack.

Abba Chilkia was a day laborer, not a renowned sage. But the prayers of a simple laborer who was scrupulous about his interpersonal obligations, including his work ethic, was acceptable on high far beyond that of the holy rabbis who sent to ask his prayers.

Maimonides codifies a similar idea in his Code (2):

Just as the boss is cautioned not to steal the wages of the poor or delay them, so is the poor person cautioned not to steal the work of the boss and idle a little here and a little there, until he passes the entire day in deceit. Rather, he must be scrupulous with time.

Alas, most of us are not at the level of Abba Chilkia or Maimonides, and occasionally we do idle: take a personal phone call, glance at a newspaper or the internet, etc. What do we do then?

In general, once a person is at the workplace and under the supervision of the employer, it is improper to dock the worker's pay for "under-work". The worker is obligated to work hard, but if he doesn't then the employer has to absorb the loss and chalk it up to inadequate supervision. (While pay shouldn't be docked unless there is an explicit agreement, a worker can certainly be discharged for idling.) There is nothing paradoxical about this; it is no different than the case of a bailee (paid watchman). The bailee, having received payment for supervising an object, must pay the owner if it is stolen, but that doesn't remove the liability of the thief.

However, your case is different. You are self-employed, and not directly supervised by your boss. In your case you should definitely deduct any time you spend idling from your time log. I saw an outstanding example of this when I first visited the typesetter for my book Meaning in Mitzvot. As I was talking to him, he took a phone call and simultaneously started a stopwatch so he would not charge me for time spent with another customer.

Sometimes workers make the excuse that occasional idling makes them work more effectively, and this may well be true. But that doesn't excuse recording those hours or minutes. Eating and sleeping make you more effective too, but you are expected to get enough rest and food on your own hours to work effectively in your work time. In fact, in the very same chapter Maimonides rules that worker may not moonlight if it makes him too tired to work, or stint on food if it makes him too weak to work effectively.

Every worker should strive to be maximally effective during all work hours, and to work 60 minutes an hour. Your work is first of all your responsibility, not that of the employer. But if you record your own hours, then you should definitely deduct time spent idling. This is particularly true for high-income professionals such as lawyers and accountants. These individuals bill hundreds of dollars an hour because they are expected to give a high level of skill and dedication for each hour. If Abba Chilkia was unwilling to distract himself from field work in his job as a day laborer, then certainly skilled professionals can be expected to screen out distractions during their billable hours.

SOURCES: (1) Babylonian Talmud Taanit 23a-b (2) Maimonides' Code, Laws of Hire 13:7

The Jewish Ethicist presents some general principles of Jewish law. For specific questions and direct application, please consult a qualified Rabbi.

January 12, 2008

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Visitor Comments: 2

(2) Mikha'el Makovi, January 17, 2008 5:16 PM

Add on to post #1 (Marc)

To add onto Marc's statement that wages are based on the assumption of a certain amount of idle time:

Most bosses nowadays seem to take it for granted that workers do not work the entire day; brief coffee and stretch breaks, for example, are considered perfectly acceptable. It stands to reason that if the local work minhag (custom) is for bosses to permit such breaks, then the worker is perfectly permitted to avail himself of them.

Moreover, work in Abba Chilkia's day was physical work, which, given the greater physical fitness of people back then, would not require the same sorts of breaks as mentally intensive work today. It is simply not possible for anyone but the most exceptional, to do a cognitively-intensive task all day without a break; the brain simply cannot handle it. Thus, as Marc says, extra daydreaming time is factored into the wage, *especially* for mentally intensive tasks.

Obviously, a worker should be conscientious about his time. But if the boss or society permits a certain level of inactivity, then minhag ought to supersede the strict law of break=theft.

(1) Marc, January 15, 2008 10:28 AM

Idle compared to what??

I would add a nuance to your answer. Wages/salaries are set based on a fair days wage for a fair days work, not what is referred to as 'maximal' effort. There is an entire discipline of industrial engineering dedicated to this. When calculating time standards, we include allowances for personal time (often 5% of the total) plus extra "daydreaming" time if the work is particularly cognitively demanding or monotonous. So what your reader needs to do is compare his idle time to what would be expected of someone working for a similar salary in a similar business. Only what exceeds that amount should be deducted.

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