Expand Overtime Pay? GOP Says No

Republicans apparently don’t believe that Americans who work longer hours should get paid more.

Leo Gerard, United Steelworkers President March 18, 2014

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and House Republicans oppose President Obama's plan to expand mandatory overtime pay to millions of workers. (Gage Skidmore/Flickr/Creative Commons)

Repub­li­cans despise America’s poor and job­less. The GOP made that per­fect­ly clear by repeat­ed­ly denounc­ing them and cut­ting food stamps and unem­ploy­ment ben­e­fits. But last week, Repub­li­cans revealed that they also hate hard-work­ing Americans!

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt called for Congress to create a federal standard for overtime pay during the Great Depression. He proposed it along with other then-radical ideas like requiring a minimum wage and prohibiting child labor.

Repub­li­cans con­demned Pres­i­dent Oba­ma for propos­ing to extend manda­to­ry over­time pay to more work­ers. The GOP doesn’t believe that Amer­i­cans who work longer hours should be paid more.

Unlike the GOP, the vast major­i­ty of Amer­i­cans believe extra effort should be reward­ed. They cher­ish the idea that their coun­try is one where those who work hard can get ahead. In recent years, how­ev­er, the actu­al expe­ri­ence of far too many Amer­i­cans is that doesn’t hap­pen. They work 50, 60, even 70 hours a week and don’t get paid extra for it. These are not high-roller man­agers or exec­u­tives or pro­fes­sion­als who don’t expect time and a half for over­time. These are hourly wage earn­ers. Pres­i­dent Oba­ma signed an exec­u­tive order last week to require employ­ers to pay more work­ers over­time, to stop cor­po­ra­tions from devalu­ing both hard work and an impor­tant Amer­i­can principal.

Over­time pay has a long tra­di­tion in the Unit­ed States. Pres­i­dent Franklin Delano Roo­sevelt called for Con­gress to cre­ate a fed­er­al stan­dard for over­time pay dur­ing the Great Depres­sion. He pro­posed it along with oth­er then-rad­i­cal ideas like requir­ing a min­i­mum wage and pro­hibit­ing child labor. These were con­tained in leg­is­la­tion called the Fair Labor Stan­dards Act.

He sent it to Con­gress 77 years ago with the admo­ni­tion: A self-sup­port­ing and self-respect­ing democ­ra­cy can plead no jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for the exis­tence of child labor, no eco­nom­ic rea­son for chis­el­ing work­ers’ wages or stretch­ing work­ers’ hours.” Just like now, Repub­li­cans opposed it.

Before over­time, Pres­i­dent Roo­sevelt had to cre­ate a stan­dard work week. He chose 40 hours — five eight-hour days — which labor unions and work­er activists had been seek­ing for more than a cen­tu­ry. They con­tend­ed that each labor­er who worked 8 hours also deserved 8 hours for rest and 8 hours for fam­i­ly and community.

Under Pres­i­dent Roosevelt’s plan, work­ers who labored more than 40 hours in a week would receive one and a half times their hourly wage for each extra hour. Extra work would be reward­ed. Anoth­er ben­e­fit would be increased employ­ment. The over­time pay require­ment encour­aged employ­ers to save mon­ey by hir­ing more work­ers, who would be less cost­ly at straight-time wages.

The law passed in 1938 with Repub­li­cans still sput­ter­ing and protest­ing. Pres­i­dents updat­ed it over the decades, most recent­ly George W. Bush. As might be expect­ed from a Repub­li­can, his changes denied over­time pay to as many as 8 mil­lion work­ers. Bush did that by enabling cor­po­ra­tions to eas­i­ly clas­si­fy more work­ers as man­agers and pro­fes­sion­als exempt from the extra pay requirements.

Now, 10 years lat­er, low-paid, clear­ly non-man­age­r­i­al work­ers are suf­fer­ing. A fry cook who spends 10 per­cent of her time instruct­ing new hires may be clas­si­fied as a super­vi­sor and denied over­time pay for the 15 extra hours the restau­rant requires her to put in every week. A com­put­er repair­man with a two-year tech school degree could be clas­si­fied as a pro­fes­sion­al and earn less than min­i­mum wage when his salary is divid­ed by the 60 hours a week he’s rou­tine­ly required to work.

Also, employ­ers can refuse to pay over­time to work­ers who earn as lit­tle as $455 a week, a salary far below his­tor­i­cal lev­els for over­time exemp­tion. That fig­ure—$23,660 a year — is the fed­er­al pover­ty lev­el for a fam­i­ly of four, hard­ly the com­fort­able pro­fes­sion­al or man­age­r­i­al salary that tra­di­tion­al­ly jus­ti­fied denial of over­time pay.

Amer­i­cans don’t expect a free lunch,” Pres­i­dent Oba­ma said when he signed the order last week telling the Labor Depart­ment to write new rules to ensure that those who deserve over­time pay get it. He added: If you’re work­ing hard, [and] you’re bare­ly mak­ing ends meet, you should be paid over­time.” That is what Amer­i­cans believe.

Still, right wing-talk show hosts, Repub­li­can lead­ers like House Speak­er John Boehn­er and the nation’s largest busi­ness lob­by, the U.S. Cham­ber of Com­merce, all cried croc­o­dile tears that cor­po­ra­tions just couldn’t pay work­ers a fair wage for extra work.

In fact, they can. Both cor­po­rate prof­its and pro­duc­tiv­i­ty are high. Since the mid-1980s, cor­po­rate prof­its have soared, set­ting post-World War II records. Over­all pro­duc­tiv­i­ty grew 74.5 per­cent between 1979 and 2012.

Wages, how­ev­er, stag­nat­ed in that 33 year peri­od, ris­ing just 5 per­cent. Work­ers are more pro­duc­tive. Their labor is cre­at­ing record prof­its. But they’re not ben­e­fit­ting. Pres­i­dent Oba­ma believes their hard work should be reward­ed. Fix­ing prob­lems with over­time pay will help. It’s part of his Oppor­tu­ni­ty for All” program.

When Pres­i­dent Oba­ma announced the plan to pro­tect work­ers from over­time exploita­tion, Nan­cy Minor, vice pres­i­dent of Unit­ed Steel­work­ers Local Union 10 – 1 in Philadel­phia, was there. As she stood with a group of work­ers behind the pres­i­dent, he told them her sto­ry. He said that since Ms. Minor’s divorce 16 years ago, she has been able to raise and sup­port four chil­dren because she received over­time pay from the oil refin­ery where she works.

For more than 75 years, the 40-hour work week and the over­time that comes with it have helped count­less work­ers like Nan­cy get ahead,” the Pres­i­dent said, And it means that when she’s asked to make sig­nif­i­cant sac­ri­fices on behalf of her com­pa­ny — which she’s hap­py to do — they’re also look­ing out for her, rec­og­niz­ing that that puts a strain on her fam­i­ly and — hav­ing to get a babysit­ter and all kinds of things, adjust­ments that she has to make. It’s just fair. It’s just the right thing to do.”

Ms. Minor, who has worked for the Suno­co refin­ery, now Philadel­phia Ener­gy Solu­tions, for 22 years, went to Wash­ing­ton to attend the event because she believes all Amer­i­cans deserve good jobs with over­time pay. I want to make sure every work­er has the same oppor­tu­ni­ty,” she said.

Amer­i­cans believe over­time pay is fair pay. Steel­work­ers like Ms. Minor receive it because their col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing agree­ments require it. But untold mil­lions of Amer­i­can work­ers don’t have that kind of pro­tec­tion. Pres­i­dent Oba­ma believes they should.

Leo Ger­ard is inter­na­tion­al pres­i­dent of the Unit­ed Steel­work­ers Union, part of the AFL-CIO. The son of a union min­er; Ger­ard start­ed work­ing at a nick­el smelter in Sud­bury, Ontario, at age 18, and rose through the union’s ranks to be appoint­ed the sev­enth inter­na­tion­al pres­i­dent Feb. 28, 2001. For more infor­ma­tion about Ger­ard, vis­it usw​.org.
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