Commentary | Health

A loss of overtime pay for some

Share this page:

Opinion pieces and speeches by EPI staff and associates.

[ THIS PIECE FIRST APPEARED IN AKRON BEACON JOURNAL ON DECEMBER 5, 2003 ]

A loss of overtime pay for some

By  Jared Bernstein and  Ross Eisenbrey

Much has been written about how partisan and polarized politics and policy-making have become. But one of the worst stories hasn’t been told: how the Bush administration ignored a consensus between Republicans and Democrats in Congress to put aside proposed changes in the rules governing overtime pay.

Unless Congress acts quickly to reverse the rule, millions face the new year with the prospect of more work for less pay.

Because we work at a think tank that studies workplace issues, we had ringside seats at what became an all-too-typical Washington donnybrook in which the special interests prevailed over the public interest. Here’s how it happened:

Back in March, the Bush administration introduced a sweeping set of changes in the rules determining who gets paid time-and-a-half for working overtime. Along with its proposal, the administration provided some estimates of the number of workers who would be affected, claiming that while a few would lose out — become ineligible for overtime pay — more would be newly covered.

Given the magnitude of the proposed changes, the numbers seemed skewed to us, so we began our own research into the impact of the proposal. The first hint that we were onto something was when the Department of Labor blocked our ability to talk to the contractor who did the analysis for them.

After completing a far more careful (and transparent) analysis of the new rules, we found that the administration’s estimate was not just a bit off, but was incredibly misleading and inaccurate. Instead of 644,000 current workers losing coverage, we found that 8 million workers could end up becoming exempt from overtime coverage.

Now the debate really heated up. While the overtime rules can be changed without congressional approval, members of the House and Senate from both parties started hearing from constituents, and newspaper editorials began to get into the fray as well. The Labor Department continued to stonewall — to this day, department officials have refused to justify their work or substantively defend their biased estimate.

Ultimately, despite aggressive administration and business arm-twisting, both houses of Congress voted to block the new rule. That’s right — not just the Senate, which has been consistently more employee-friendly on such issues — but the House as well. Essentially, enough Republicans were convinced that these rules would hurt workers who depend on overtime pay to make ends meet.

It should have ended there. Historically, when both houses agree that a rule is unacceptable, the administration drops it. Something about the will of the people, and all that patriotic stuff. After all, the “unelected bureaucrats,’ as conservatives often label them, have only as much authority as Congress delegates to them.

But not with this administration. This rule change is so important to its friends and funders in the business world — further proof that we were onto something — that it decided to buck history as well as the wishes of both houses of Congress. The administration is pushing the rule through anyway.

This is beyond partisanship — plenty of Republicans agreed with us. It’s pure special-interest politics with complete disregard for the democratic process. The public as a whole is totally opposed to any rule that eliminates overtime rights.

Of course, it bodes ill for workers when business’ interests trump both parties’ wishes and the public consensus. But worse, it suggests a worrisome failure of the system to deliver a fair result.

We’ve been involved in these debates for decades, and it works like this: One side proposes something, the other side challenges it, the facts go on display, both sides lobby, debate, etc., and public officials make the call based on the evidence and the politics.

And that’s exactly what happened. But this time, the Bush administration decided it didn’t like that outcome and, therefore, would ignore the bipartisan wishes of the nation’s representatives.

That’s undemocratic, and Congress should reverse the ruling on overtime at its first opportunity.

Jared Bernstein is a senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute.  Ross Eisenbrey  is vice president of the Economic Policy Institute.

[ POSTED TO VIEWPOINTS ON DECEMBER 9, 2003 ]


See related work on Health

See more work by Jared Bernstein