Commentary | Wages, Incomes, and Wealth

Sad Labor Day for working Americans

Opinion pieces and speeches by EPI staff and associates.


Sad Labor Day for working Americans

by  Ross Eisenbrey

This Labor Day, the greatest achievement of the American labor movement is in peril. The Bush administration is making radical changes in the hard-won law that established the 40-hour workweek and grants workers the right to overtime pay.

Secretary of Labor Elaane Chao knows that the proposed changes will disqualify millions of workers who now have the right to be paid for their overtime, and she also knows that most of the public won’t like those changes one bit. That is why the changes are being made without public hearings and why the department issued a phony analysis that claims only 644,000 workers will lose their right to overtime pay, even though the true number is closer to 10 million.

This stealth approach to changing the law should have Congress howling. After all, the rules for overtime have been set for 65 years, ever since Congress and President Franklin D. Roosevelt agreed to the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938. If radical changes in the law affecting the rights of millions of workers are to be made, Congress — not the Labor Department — should make that decision. And Congress normally demands that agencies give the public a chance to be heard before important decisions are made.

When the Clinton administration tried to issue ergonomics regulations, Republicans in Congress attacked the Labor Department for ‘rushing to judgment’ because it held ‘only’ 27 days of public hearings. And some members of Congress complained bitterly that the South was insulted because hearings were held in Oregon, Illinois and Washington, D.C.

By that reasoning, the whole nation is being insulted now by the Bush administration, which has not held a single public hearing on the overtime regulations anywhere in the United States.

Yet the Senate has been silent so far, and the House failed to pass an amendment to block the proposed regulations.

Public hearings would let people see the proposed rules for what they are — a damaging attack on the working and living standards of working class and middle-class Americans, who already work the longest hours in the developed world.

The proposed rules are designed to disqualify entire classes of workers, such as paralegals, engineers, loan officers, claims adjusters, from overtime pay. Narrow exemptions that allow employers not to pay overtime to professional employees with advanced degrees in such fields as science, law and medicine are being expanded to include people who have never finished or even attended college.

Millions of workers who could never be confused with the bosses and top administrators that Congress originally wanted to exempt from protection will lose their right to overtime pay. And almost any white-collar worker making $65,000 will be disqualified from protection.

The Bush Labor Department has pretended that these radical changes are really nothing more than an update of old rules, removing some obsolete terms and raising salary tests at the bottom of the age scale to protect low-income workers.

This is truly the case of the wolf in sheep’s clothing. It would have been possible to remove the handful of obsolete terms from the regulations without denying overtime rights to a single worker. Instead, the changes are a business wish list of ways to deny overtime protection to as many workers as possible. And if the Bush administration cared at all about low-income workers it would raise the minimum wage instead of fighting efforts to get a $1.50 increase.

A high-powered lobbying campaign by big business narrowly defeated a vote in the House of Representatives to block these rules. There is still hope that the Senate will stand up for working Americans and pass a blocking amendment when Congress returns in September.

If the amendment fails, a few years from now, after these new overtime rules have had their effect, millions of Americans will find themselves working longer and longer hours, with no additional pay to show for it.

The 8-hour day and 40-hour week that our great-grandparents fought for during a 50-year struggle and finally won in the New Deal will be nothing but a memory if the administration and its big business allies succeed in their stealth attack on this key labor protection.

Ross Eisenbrey is vice president and policy director of the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C


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