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Obama Seeks to Restore Overtime Pay for Millions of Workers Denied Under Bush-Era Rules

Pete Souza. The Official White House Photostream/Wikimedia

In 2004, President George W. Bush, at the urging of business groups, used his executive powers to change overtime eligibility rules and allow businesses to deny overtime for millions of workers. Tomorrow, President Barack Obama is expected to announce that he will direct the U.S. Department of Labor to update overtime eligibility rules to restore overtime protection that workers have lost to inflation since 1975. 

Under federal overtime regulations, workers who earn less than a certain salary level are generally entitled to overtime protection. For decades after enactment of the federal overtime law in 1938, this salary threshold was updated every few years as a routine matter. However, the last regular adjustment to the salary level was made by President Gerald R. Ford in 1975. No further adjustments were made for the next 29 years, and as a result, workers’ overtime protections have been steadily eroded by inflation.

Obama is expected to announce tomorrow that the Labor Department will update the salary threshold for overtime eligibility. Above this salary level, workers may be denied overtime protection if they are considered executive management, administrative management or professionals. Below this salary level, workers cannot be denied overtime protection for these reasons.

However, it is not clear how much the president will propose to increase the salary level. The Economic Policy Institute (EPI) has recommended an increase to $970 per week ($50,440 per year), which would restore all of the overtime protection lost to inflation since 1975. 

New York and California already require companies to pay overtime to anyone earning less than $600 and $640 per week, respectively. Those salary levels are set to increase to $675 and $800 per week by 2016.

The current federal threshold of $455 per week—or $23,660 per year—is ridiculously low. It is barely above the federal poverty level for a family of four. A White House official explained that overtime protections have eroded to such an extent that millions of workers who should not be denied overtime protection are being left unprotected.

For example, a convenience store manager or a fast-food shift supervisor or an office worker may be expected to work 50 or 60 hours a week or more, making barely enough to keep a family out of poverty, and not receive a dime of overtime pay.

EPI Vice President Ross Eisenbrey says many of the workers who would benefit from restored overtime protection are insurance clerks, secretaries, low-level managers, social workers, bookkeepers, dispatchers, sales and marketing assistants and employees in scores of other occupations.

As the rules stand now, an assistant manager at a fast-food restaurant who spends 95 percent of his (or her) time cooking fries, running a cash register, sweeping floors and moving supplies into and out of the freezer can be denied any overtime pay and work 60 or 70 hours a week if his salary is at least $23,660 a year. Because he is exempt [from overtime protection], the hourly rate of his salary can fall below the minimum wage; “executives” are excluded from minimum wage protection, too.

Last December, President Obama called attention to growing economic inequality in America and declared that making sure the economy works for working people is the defining challenge of our time and drives everything he does as president. With Republicans blocking the legislative agenda he campaigned on in 2012, the president has vowed to act within his executive powers to make sure the economy workers for everyone. Today’s announcement follows on the heels of his January executive order requiring federal contractors on all new or renewed contracts to pay their workers at least $10.10 an hour.

Also Democrats in Congress and the president are attempting to raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10 per hour. If you think workers deserve a raise, sign this petition.

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