Picking Workers' Pockets
By Bob Herbert
The New York Times
Thursday 03 July 2003
When I started in the newspaper business I made so little money I had to work part time in my father's upholstery shop to make ends meet. So I'd spend the days chasing stories and struggling with deadlines, and the nights wrestling with beat-up sofas and chairs.
Then the editors at The Star-Ledger in Newark began asking me to work overtime on the copy desk, dreaming up headlines and doing some editing. The extra time-and-a-half pay was just enough to keep me solvent and out of the upholstery shop. And the copy desk experience was invaluable.
Now suppose the editors had been able to tell me to work the extra hours on the copy desk without paying me overtime. I couldn't have afforded to do it, and might have left the paper.
The Bush administration, which has the very bad habit of smiling at working people while siphoning money from their pockets, is trying to change the federal Fair Labor Standards Act in a way that could cause millions of workers to lose their right to overtime pay.
The act, one of the last major domestic reform measures of the New Deal, gave Americans the 40-hour workweek and a minimum wage (which began at 25 cents an hour in the late 1930's). It wiped out grueling 12-hour days for many workers and prohibited the use of child labor in interstate commerce.
The act's overtime regulations have not been updated since 1975, and part of what the administration is proposing makes sense. Under existing rules only workers earning less than $8,060 a year automatically qualify for overtime. That would be raised to $22,100 a year.
But then comes the bad news. Nearly 80 percent of all workers are in jobs that qualify them for overtime pay, which is time-and-a-half for each hour that is worked beyond the normal 40-hour week. The administration wants to make it easier for employers to exempt many of those workers from overtime protection by classifying them as administrative, professional or executive personnel.
The quickest way to determine who is getting the better of this deal is to note that business groups are applauding the proposed changes while the A.F.L.-C.I.O. held a protest rally outside the Labor Department on Monday.
But this is an administration that could figure out a way to sell sunblock to a night crawler. So the rules changes are being spun as a boon to working people.
"By recognizing the professional status of skilled employees, the proposed regulation will provide them a guaranteed salary and flexible hours," said Tammy McCutchen, the Labor Department's wage and hour administrator.
All spinning aside, I wonder how many Americans really think that working longer hours for less money is a good thing.
A more helpful approach to the issue was offered by the Economic Policy Institute, which found that the proposed changes could ultimately eliminate the right to overtime for eight million people. That represents an awful lot of cash that would be drawn away from working families.
Unfortunately, this is the kind of thing the Bush administration is committed to - undermining a hard-won initiative of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's that has helped many millions of working Americans for more than six decades. It ain't broke, but George Bush is busy fixin' it.
You would think that an administration that has presided over the loss of millions of jobs might want to strengthen the protections of workers fortunate enough to still be employed. But that's not what this administration is about.
Jared Bernstein, a co-author of the study by the Economic Policy Institute, said, "The new rules are structured in such a way as to create a very strong incentive for employers to exempt workers from overtime protection, primarily by converting hourly workers to salaried workers."
One of the workers who joined Monday's protest at the Labor Department was Bob Adams, a bakery manager at a supermarket chain in Minneapolis and St. Paul.
When I asked him why he had traveled to Washington for the demonstration, he said: "Because I think we have to put a stop to this. There seems to be a systematic assault on the rights of workers by this administration, and this is a perfect example of it. They tried to push this through as quietly as they could."