The Difference Between Paying Your Dues and Being Abused

woman stressed at work

Photo Credit: DG PhotoStock/Shutterstock

Let me tell you about the worst job I’ve ever had.

As a TV producer, you often get contracted from show to show, rather than working for one specific company. I was 25 and working at a little-known production company for a little-known show. The hours were 10 to 7, already an hour over the typical eight-hour workday. But, if you left the office at 7 pm when the workday technically ended, you would receive an angry call or text from the boss asking why you weren’t at your desk. Oftentimes, the end of the day felt like a game of chicken. Who was going to finally decide enough is enough and try to get home to salvage some semblance of time with loved ones or even some much needed solo relaxation?

Oftentimes, the end of the day felt like a game of chicken. Who was going to finally decide enough is enough?

When my team complained that we had not been paid for working weekends, the youngest and least senior member of the team was called into a meeting with management for a lecture about the team’s commitment to the project. They were told that, because we had been hired for a weekly rate, that technically we were contracted for 60 hours a week at that rate and we were lucky to only be asked to work from 10-7. It was up to this least senior team member to disseminate the information to the rest of us, instead of allowing us all the ability to have a meeting and discuss these issues — a power move by the company. This team member’s lack of experience was used as a tool to lecture the rest of us while ensuring those with more experience and knowledge of our rights would be unable to argue against these outlandish policies. The company finished the talk with the standard line about paying one’s dues and how we all needed to be willing to do so.

When I contacted a lawyer months later, I was told that many of these practices were illegal. In New York State, a weekly rate entitles an employer (who has you on payroll) to only 40 hours of your time per week. Anything over 40 hours should be paid at an overtime rate. However, overworking without paying overtime has become common practice in the TV production world (as well as others).

And, if you ever tried to bring up the legalities of the issue, you would be told that there were dozens of people who had sent in their résumés for your job who would all be more than happy to replace you without any complaints. The sad fact of the matter was, this was completely true. “You have to pay your dues, after all.”

Justifying Abuse

Now that unfair, illegal, and demeaning practices are finally being brought to light in the news (for instance, at certain daytime talk shows), the world is finally getting a glimpse at the actual human cost that goes into creating many of the shows they love. TV production and media jobs are highly coveted and really hard to come by. So, when you finally do get your foot in the door, it is paramount that you do whatever you can to stay there. Oftentimes, this means putting up with treatment that blurs the line between “paying your dues” and just plain abuse.

Paying your dues isn’t all bad. Working the hardest and least glamorous positions on a project can teach you a lot about all the nuts and bolts that go into making things run smoothly. Then, when you do work your way up the ladder, the hope is that you will not only understand the foundation that the project is built on, but you will also respect the employees who work under you, having done that work yourself. But, paying your dues can also be a blanket statement used by employers in highly competitive industries to justify all sorts of abuse.

It’s another thing entirely for the idea of paying your dues to justify any number of workplace abuses, from long hours to mistreatment, to even unsafe tasks and conditions.

Need an employee to work overtime because you forgot to assign a project earlier? She’s gotta pay her dues. Want to justify forcing your least senior team member to work under less than ideal conditions on set? Well, we all had to do it, you have to pay your dues. Your employee wants to go to their best friend’s wedding on Saturday but you need a project done by Monday? Your personal life can’t come ahead of your work life — it’s all part of paying your dues.

It’s one thing to be asked to do the least enviable work on a project; we’ve all had to do it, and that IS part of paying your dues. It’s another thing entirely for the idea of paying your dues to justify any number of workplace abuses, from long hours to mistreatment, to even unsafe tasks and conditions. Paying your dues is often used as justification for taking advantage of the desperation a young and often underemployed worker is bound to feel when trying to break into a competitive industry. Many times, this young and inexperienced employee may have just spent hundreds of thousands of dollars earning a degree in this industry and is eager to justify the years and money spent earning said degree. Taking advantage of someone in a desperate situation should never be praised and should most definitely not have become the workplace norm that it is nowadays.

Most employers want to work with the best and brightest members of their respective industries. However, many employers are not ready to deal with the reality of what this means. The best and brightest workers out there are typically extraordinarily busy outside of their main job. Many of us will have several projects in the works in our off time, where we try to make a name for ourselves on our own, to get our names and projects out there. And this is all in addition to the need to constantly be networking. So, that makes our free time even more important and even more precious. Asking an already overworked employee to put in overtime when it isn’t 100% urgent and necessary is a weird power play many of us have faced.

But the consequences in an employee’s personal life and career can be very dire. Not only can this lead to missed opportunities for an employee, but the strain and pressure to make everything work at once can lead to great emotional and mental distress. Some of us feel like we are lazy if we take even the odd hour to ourselves, leading to an intense lack of self-care, which can be damaging to one’s physical and emotional health, not to mention one’s relationships. At the end of the day, we are just plain not enjoying our lives.

Important to Know Your Worth

Many of us are highly aware when our jobs cross the line between paying dues and abuse. Some of us are still getting the “you need to pay your dues” excuse even 10 years into our careers. So, when exactly are these dues paid in full? When can we expect to be treated as equals rather than nameless automatons? And, when is it okay in your employers’ eyes for you to finally start trying to have a life outside of work?

Now, of course this isn’t to say that there aren't companies out there that treat their employees fairly. The next job I had after my worst one, I was lucky enough to have a boss who set the standard to which I will forever hold future employers, and even myself. Our hours were 10 to 6, and this was one of the only things he was strict on enforcing. When he caught me working at 6:30 one night just to earn some brownie points, he sat me down and explained his philosophy. “Happy employees do better work,” he said. “And, employees are happier when they have lives outside of work. Employees are more creative when they have full lives outside of work." He ended with, “So get out of here and enjoy your night!”

Some of us are still getting the 'you need to pay your dues' excuse even 10 years into our careers.

If you do find you are being abused or otherwise taken advantage of at work, there are steps you can take. One is contacting your company’s HR representative. Typically, this kind of issue is exactly what HR is supposed to be handling. However, if your company does not have a designated HR rep or you feel you will be penalized for reaching out to them, there are other steps to take. If you are part of a union or guild, you have the option to reach out to them for either help or to file a complaint against your workplace.

Another option is reaching out to the Department of Labor in your respective state and filing a complaint that way. In the past few years, many production companies have been taken to task for underpaying their employees when it comes to overtime work. So, while this option may not pay out immediately, hopefully you will save someone else from being put in a similar situation.

Remember, it is always important to know your worth. If you feel that you are being taken advantage of, you don’t need to accept that this is just how your career in your chosen industry will be. There will be other positions that will treat you with respect, so start looking for them. Ask your friends and former co-workers how they like their place of work and try to find ins at places that are known for better employee treatment. Sure, it can be especially hard to trade up jobs right now during the pandemic, but it never hurts to make those connections. That way, when the company of your dreams starts hiring again, you have already made your interest clear and shown your enthusiasm to work for them.

If the situation escalates beyond the “normal” abuses of power we’ve mentioned above to mental, physical, or sexual abuse, contact someone immediately, whether that be a supervisor or one of the resources listed above. Some abuses of power have no justification and there is no reason for you to be in that situation. Always ask for help until you find it.

This post is part of a monthlong January CircleAround series in which we asked writers to explore the topic "New Year, New You." After an extremely challenging year like no other, if you had to reinvent yourself in one specific way in 2021 based on what you learned in the pandemic, what would you do? Think of it as a New Year’s resolution on steroids. To see all the posts in the series, visit here. And if you'd like to contribute to the series, send us your thoughts to or post on our "2021 Vibes Wall."

CircleAround is operated by a wholly owned subsidiary of Girl Scouts of the USA. The site serves adult women nationwide by providing content that is uplifting, thought-provoking, and useful. We make revenue distributions back to GSUSA so they can further their mission of building girls of courage, confidence, and character who make the world a better place.


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