Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Heads Workers Lose; Tails Workers Lose: Effort to Stop New Overtime Regulations Stalls

December 3rd, 2003 | Paula Brantner

In an effort to demonstrate just how committed this Administration is to helping businesses at the expense of workers’ health, happiness, and financial security, last week the White House forced opponents of overtime reform to abandon their efforts to include in an appropriation bill prohibitions enacted by both houses of Congress preventing overtime changes from going into effect. Those leading the fight were forced to back down after the Administration insisted the President would veto any appropriations bill containing the prohibitions, which would have the effect of jeopardizing many other programs benefiting workers and paralyzing numerous federal agencies. While opponents vowed to continue their fight, the regulations could go into effect early next year, given the determination of the Labor Department (with the Administration’s support) to implement the new overtime rules, regardless of whether they’re supported by Congress or the American public.

As discussed in several prior editions of Today’s Workplace, (October 3; September 29; July 11; June 16), the overtime battle has been hard fought since March, when the proposed new changes were released. While proponents of the changes deemed them necessary to modernize decades-old regulations with inadequate salary guidelines and outdated occupational categories, opponents recognized that the changes would harm far more workers than would be helped. The Labor Department, when soliciting comments on the proposal, heard from an estimated 75,000-100,000 Americans (the most comments ever received by DOL on an individual proposal), with vast opposition to the changes, yet their substance has not deviated from the original proposal. (July 11 Today’s Workplace.)

In mid-July, the House of Representatives, in its first consideration of the issue, narrowly (213-210) voted to uphold the new regulations. However, opposition to the regulations was stronger in the Senate, and on September 11, the Senate voted 54-45 to attach a prohibition preventing implementation of the regulations to the appropriations bill funding the cabinet-level departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education–the three departments arguably having the most influence over the lives of most American workers. (See September 29 Today’s Workplace.) This sent the measure itself to a conference committee to reconcile the differences between the houses of Congress in the appropriations bill. In the meantime, however, some members of the House had seen the light, after hearing the stories of their constituents who stood to lose significant income and/or family time if the proposed changes went into effect. In a new vote on October 2, the House voted 221-203 to support a resolution instructing its members of the conference committee to support the Senate version of the appropriations bill with the ban on overtime changes included. (See (October 3 Today’s Workplace.)

The fun and games were really just beginning at this point, however. Despite the new House vote, supposedly reflecting the will of the House of Representatives, the Republican House leadership still opposed the changes, as they were supported by only a few Republican members who courageously joined the Democratic minority to forge a majority vote on this issue. The House leadership therefore appointed to the conference committee individuals who opposed the Senate version of the bill and who voted in the minority on the latter non-binding vote. (See Work In Progress.) Sen. Arlen Specter, who chaired the committee and supported adding the overtime provision to the appropriations bill, then came under increasing pressure to delete the provision.

Specter, who faces a difficult re-election fight next year and who wants to maintain good relationships with labor groups and workers, initially planned to hold out against pressure from the White House and the Republican leadership, but felt compelled to cave once it was clear that remaining firm on overtime jeopardized the entire appropriations bill. (See Associated Press article). As he recognized when it comes to the spending bill, “Does anybody have a choice?” So the appropriations bill was finally allowed to move forward.

It’s unclear what will happen now, as partisan wrangling has derailed almost all of the spending bills needed to keep the government running. Some are proposing that one giant appropriations bill (accompanied by all kinds of policy changes and pork barrel projects that legislators hope will escape notice) be passed, so that Congress can finally adjourn for the year. (See Fox News report.) However, there may also be some senators who are able to successfully derail this spending approach. What is known that American workers remain in jeopardy, as there are currently no provisions which prevent the overtime regulations from going into effect, possibly before Congress resumes in late January or early February. As Sen. Tom Harkin put it, “Just in time for the holidays, the White House has delivered another gift for big business, along with a pay cut for millions of working families.” (See Associated Press article). It continues to be critical for those working families to speak out.

Take Action Now: Protect Your Right to Overtime Pay

Additional Information: The AFL-CIO has declared this week (Dec 1-5) a “National Week of Action” on the overtime issue. (See Work in Progress for further information.)

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