With the passage of an overtime law this summer, Maine has become the first state to cap the number of hours employers can demand of their employees.

The issue is of growing concern nationally. Mandatory overtime-- forcing full-time employees to work more hours than they would otherwise choose--was the crux of strikes this summer against telephone giant Verizon Communications, baked-goods producer Earthgrains Co. and the Stanford University Medical Center, as well as a work slowdown by United Airlines pilots.

However timely and precedent-setting it may seem, the Maine law is considered by many to be essentially symbolic, allowing for up to 80 hours of overtime per 14-day period. For the average worker, that's a big enough allowance to force a worker to work double shifts every day, all year. "It's so generous, it is in effect no cap at all," says University of Iowa law professor Marc Linder, who studies efforts to regulate the workweek.

Governor Angus King had previously vetoed a similar bill that would have limited overtime to 96 hours per three-week period. He signed the more lenient version following the highly publicized death last December of a power lineman in Maine who touched a live power line without gloves, an error his family blamed on his having worked 50 of the last 55 hours of his life.

Bills to limit mandatory overtime have been considered in other states, but legislators in West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Washington have let them languish. New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman in September vetoed a bill that would have limited mandatory overtime requirements for nurses and nurses' aides.