What the Overtime Proposal is Really About

| Aug 21, 2015

Cross-posted from the Huffington Post.

In July, the U.S. Department of Labor demonstrated an exceptional commitment to America’s working families by proposing an update to the rules that determine who qualifies for overtime pay. Described as a major effort to support the middle class, the update could put more money in the pockets of millions of people. Most of those who would benefit are employed women, especially single moms, African American women and Latinas.

It’s no surprise, then, that staunch advocates for women and working families like the organization I lead, the National Partnership for Women & Families, have been praising the action. If finalized as written, the rule would mean a long overdue and badly needed raise for people who struggle to put food on the table, pay bills and simply provide for their families, despite working long hours.

But the opposition has been fierce, and the responses are telling. Because even though the proposal is about a justified raise, it’s about much more than that too. It’s about what the nation stands for and the kind of country we’re going to be. It’s about what protections working people will have and what our economy will look like. It’s about whether workers will be required to sacrifice family time and family care to get ahead. The answers to these questions are what the fight over this rule is really about.

The overtime proposal is about preventing blatant worker exploitation. The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) first established wage and hour protections in 1938 to end poverty wages and insufferable work hours. Minimum wage and overtime standards protected those paid lower, hourly wages, and the overtime provision included similar protections for salaried, middle-income workers – the middle class. At its core, the law was aimed at ensuring fair wages and hours by making overwork expensive for employers.

And, up until 1975, it worked. The salary threshold that determines overtime pay eligibility was updated several times to ensure middle-class workers continued to be covered. But then that threshold froze for three decades, until 2004, when minor and inadequate changes were made. Today, only hourly workers and those paid salaries below the poverty line for a family of four – $23,660 per year – are eligible for overtime pay. That leaves millions of middle-class workers without basic wage and hour protections.

The proposed rule would change this by updating the salary threshold to $50,440 per year. This level would ensure that the share of salaried workers with overtime protections today is closer to the share that had them in 1975. It is, quite simply, an update that brings the standard closer to where it was intended to be – and where it should be. It would also establish an important mechanism for automatically updating the threshold going forward.

The overtime proposal is also about keeping a promise to America’s workers. The FLSA sent a clear message that unfair wages and the mistreatment of workers would not be tolerated in this country, and that hard work would come with fair compensation and a fair shot to get ahead. But the federal minimum wage has stagnated and – due to inflation, employer practices, and inaction on the part of Congress and previous administrations – overtime protections for salaried workers have eroded.

Right now, salaried workers paid more than $23,660 per year only qualify for overtime pay if their duties are not professional, executive or administrative. This was meant to exclude workers who are paid high salaries and given more flexibility because they perform high-level duties. Instead, employees today are often misclassified and forced to work long hours without adequate wages or overtime pay. The proposed rule would change this too by clearly defining the types of employees who should be exempt.

Finally, the overtime proposal is about not forcing people to choose between their economic security and their time. The rule would reinforce the value and importance of the 40-hour workweek, which is an illusion for many people today. Newly covered workers would either receive the overtime pay they deserve when they work more than 40 hours in a week, or they wouldn’t be required to work extra hours and, thus, would have more time to meet personal and family needs.

Easing the conflict between job and family is critically important for women who are both breadwinners and caregivers in most families – and because we have failed, as a nation, to establish paid sick days and paid family and medical leave standards. Women paid low wages have little choice but to say yes when their employers demand extra hours, even when family needs compete. For salaried workers ineligible for overtime pay, that choice is often between working long hours for the same pay and losing their jobs.

So, yes, updating the nation’s overtime rules is about an incredibly important and terribly overdue raise for millions of workers and their families. But it’s also about restoring basic fairness in our nation’s workplaces, making real our commitment to equal opportunity and economic security for working families, and valuing time. And people’s reactions to the proposal say a lot about their views and values, priorities and principles.

Through September 4, the Department of Labor is collecting public comments on the overtime proposal before finalizing it. You don’t have to be an expert or an attorney to submit a comment. Every person who recognizes the proposal’s importance should send a strong message of support and emphasize that America’s working families are counting on the department to proceed with updating the overtime rule, without delay, and as written. This proposal is about our future, and we all have a tremendous amount at stake.