The Building Tradesman Newspaper

Friday, September 03, 2004

Bush's new overtime rules amount to a pay takeaway from workers

By The Building Tradesman

On Monday, Aug. 23, the Bush administration took away the right to receive overtime pay from millions of employees in a broad range of occupations, from office workers in financial services to embalmers, nursery school teachers and restaurant chefs and assistant managers.

Despite four disapproving votes in Congress, the Bush administration is using its power and authority to accomplish the biggest rollback in employee rights in more than half a century.

The administration denies it is weakening overtime rights and claims to be taking overtime pay from workers earning $100,000 a year or more. But the new regulations have their biggest impact on employees earning far less. Salaried employees earning as little as $24,000 a year are subject to the new rules, which make it far easier for employers to deny overtime pay.

It might shock people to think the government would lie to them, but there is no nice way to describe the administration’s campaign of disinformation around the new overtime regulations.

Secretary Elaine Chao’s spin – that she is only interested in clarity and helping low-wage workers – is belied by the regulations themselves. According to three top experts on the Fair Labor Standards, virtually every change in the new regulations will weaken or eliminate the right to overtime pay. These nonpartisan experts, first appointed in the Reagan administration, include the Department’s top two Fair Labor Standards lawyers for most of the last 20 years and the top career official responsible for enforcing the law during that same period. They also conclude the new regulations are so confusing and self-contradictory that they will provoke additional court litigation.

Looking only at 10 of the dozens of changes in the law, six million employees will lose the right to overtime pay. Those hit hardest will be low-level supervisors, who will be classified as executives by the new rules, even if they spend 90 percent of their time doing the same kind of labor as the two employees they supervise. Team leaders in factories, construction and office settings will lose overtime rights, and hundreds of thousands of employees without a college education will be called professionals and denied overtime pay.

This is a corruption of the Fair Labor Standards Act and its exemptions, by which Congress intended to ensure that all but a narrow class of well-paid top officials and professional employees would get time-and-a-half pay when they work long hours.

The Bush administration has sided with employer groups, who oppose regulation and resent having to pay extra for overtime work. They want the flexibility to work employees 50 or 60 hours a week without paying any more than they would for 40. One restaurant chain worked low-paid assistant managers 85 or 90 hours a week without any additional pay. The new rules will make that kind of abuse legal.

As we approach Labor Day, founded as part of the original campaign for an 8-hour workday and a 40-hour work week, it is critical to speak out against these new regulations. Unless Congress can block these regulations this fall, millions will lose overtime pay and find themselves working longer hours. It took 100 years of struggle to pass the Fair Labor Standards Act and create a 40-hour work week. It has taken the Bush administration less than four years to turn back the clock.
Ross Eisenbrey is vice president and policy director of the Economic Policy Institute, a labor-backed think tank in Washington, D.C. Reprinted with permission.