Published on Monday, October 13, 2003 by the St Paul (MN) Pioneer Press

Rewrite of Overtime Rules is Attack on 40-Hour Workweek

by Tom Harkin

The same crowd that gave us the Clear Skies Initiative, allowing utilities to pollute more freely, and the Healthy Forests Initiative, unleashing timber companies in our national forests, now is turning its tender mercies to the rules governing overtime pay for American workers.

The Bush administration claims that it simply wants to give employers clearer guidance as to who is eligible for time-and-a-half overtime pay.

Don't be fooled. The administration's radical rewrite of overtime rules is designed to strip up to 8 million workers of their right to fair compensation. It is a stealth attack on the 40-hour workweek, pushed aggressively by the administration without a single public hearing.

The administration would effectively end overtime pay in dozens of occupations, including nurses, police officers, firefighters, clerical workers, air-traffic controllers, social workers and journalists.

Indeed, the new criteria for excluding employees from overtime are deliberately vague and elastic, so as to stretch across vast swaths of the salaried workforce. It is ironic that America's first-responders, working long hours to protect us from terrorist threats, would be among those denied their overtime rights.

Since passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938, overtime rights and the 40-hour workweek have been sacrosanct respected by presidents of both parties. But nothing, it seems, is sacred to the Bush administration. These radical revisions are anti-worker and anti-family. For 65 years, the 40-hour workweek has allowed workers to spend time with their families, instead of toiling past dark and on weekends. At a time when "family dinner" is becoming an oxymoron, this standard is more important than ever.

The timing of this attack on overtime is yet another instance of Bush's economic malpractice. Bear in mind that time-and-a-half pay accounts for some 25 percent of the total income of Americans who work overtime.

With average U.S. incomes declining and our consumer-driven economy teetering, the proposed changes would slash the paychecks of millions of white-collar workers.

Moreover, the proposed change won't create one new job. In fact, it will do the opposite. If employers can more easily deny overtime pay, they will simply push their current employees to work longer hours without compensation. With nine million Americans currently out of work, why give employers yet another disincentive to hire new workers?

It is tragic that, as U.S. corporations continue to export tens of thousands of jobs each month, we now propose to import third-world-style labor standards for the remaining U.S. workforce.

The administration has proposed to increase from $8,060 to $22,100 the threshold below which overtime pay is guaranteed the first increase since 1975. To keep pace with inflation, the threshold actually needs to be raised to nearly $30,000. Nonetheless, the administration can and should act immediately to raise the threshold, rather than holding this action hostage to a broader rollback of overtime rights for white-collar workers.

The Senate and House, with bipartisan majorities, have approved my amendment to the labor appropriations bill to block implementation of the new rules. Bush who has never vetoed an appropriations bill now threatens to veto this bill in order to sustain his attack on overtime rights. His zeal is misguided. We can modernize America's overtime rules without taking away the overtime right of those who currently have it.

Harkin is a U.S. senator, D-Iowa.