CHN: Senate Votes to Overturn Labor Department’s Revised Overtime Pay Proposal

Democrats and organized labor scored a victory against the Bush Administration on Tuesday, voting to bar the Department of Labor from implementing its new overtime pay provisions. By a vote of 52 to 47, the Senate adopted an amendment to a bill to cut corporate taxes (S 1637) that would block the Labor Department’s final rule restructuring the overtime pay rules for most white-collar workers. The amendment offered by Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) to maintain overtime rights for American workers won support from all Democrats but Zell Miller (GA) and five Republicans: Lisa Murkowski (AK); Ben Nighthorse Campbell (CO); Lincoln Chafee (RI); Olympia J. Snowe (ME); and Arlen Specter (PA).
While blocking the implementation of the new rules restricting overtime benefits to middle-income workers, Harkin’s amendment preserves the provision making 1.3 million low-income workers earning between $8,060 and $23,660 eligible for overtime pay for the first time. The outcome of the pending legislative battle could affect the incomes of up to eight million workers, many of whom depend on overtime pay as a major source of income.

The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 guarantees almost 80 percent of the workforce time and a half for each hour they work over 40 hours each week. The Bush Administration’s original proposal would have altered the classification of millions of workers, allowing employers to classify certain employees as supervisors or team leaders. The result would have been a loss of overtime benefits for nearly 8 million workers.

Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao modified the language of the rules (raising the upper ceiling lever from $65,000 to $100,000) in response to the 75,000 mostly critical comments received by the Department of Labor last summer. “The new rule exempts only ‘white-collar’ jobs from overtime protection,” said Secretary Chao in her April 28 testimony to the Committee on Education and Workforce. Though the Department of Labor contends that only 107,000 white-collar workers will lose eligibility, Opponents argue the new eligibility rules will allow employers greater flexibility in denying overtime to other occupations, including nursery school teachers, technology industry workers, chefs, and financial services workers.

The victory for working families may not be a lasting one. Reports indicate the House GOP leadership will actively work to avoid similar language in its legislation even though a majority of the House has previously voted to stop the new overtime rules. Even if the House does adopt Harkin’s amendment, the bill faces a veto from the President, as did the FY04 Labor-HHS-Education appropriations bill last fall when Senate Democrats managed to pass similar language (the language was eventually removed in conference). Despite the difficult challenges ahead, this vote shows when people voice their opposition in large numbers, it can make a difference.

Labor and Employment