Women and working parents especially hard hit

Next time you go to Burger King, you may find that the cashier ringing up your order has been promoted to an executive. But just like the BK crown doesn’t make you a king, the cashier’s new title doesn’t get her CEO pay. In fact, the new job title will result in lower pay and longer hours.

New overtime regulations put into effect Aug. 23 by the Bush administration’s Department of Labor (DOL) give employers broad leeway to classify nurses, web designers, chefs and even some factory workers as “executives,” “learned professionals” and “managers.”

The workers pay dearly for the newly bestowed titles; their paychecks will no longer include time-and-a-half for hours worked above 40 a week. Currently, the average worker whose income includes overtime pay takes in $161 a week for those extra hours.

The new rules are a multibillion dollar bonanza for corporate America. Eight of the nation’s largest employer groups submitted wish-lists of jobs they would like exempted. And Bush’s DOL was generous in granting their wishes. Dental hygienists, computer professionals, blue collar “team leaders,” financial services workers and restaurant managers are just a few of the dozens of categories exempted.

The Newspaper Association of America successfully lobbied for reporters to be classified as “learned professionals,” thus exempt from overtime requirements, while the National Restaurant Association wanted to add chefs to that rapidly growing category. According to the Economic Policy Institute, all of the nation’s pre-kindergarten and nursery school teachers, no matter how low their pay, as newly minted “professionals” will no longer be eligible for overtime pay.

Time is money and under the new scheme workers will be giving up both. The average workweek for U.S. workers now exceeds 40 hours in most industries. For those who work overtime, the workweek averages 51.8 hours.

“Millions of families count on overtime pay to make ends meet, a need that has only increased in importance as wage growth continues to stall,” said EPI’s Ross Eisenbrey. But overtime work is a bane to working families, cutting in to the time parents have to spend with their children.

The new regulations have stirred up a storm of protest. “These overtime pay cuts are like a giant new tax on working families by a president who, at the same time, works hard to give tax breaks to millionaires,” says a Utility Workers of America action alert.

On Aug. 23, the day the rules took effect, thousands of workers in Florida, Missouri, Ohio, Michigan, Iowa and the nation’s capital rallied to demand that Congress overturn them. In the past year, the House voted once and the Senate three times to block the overtime pay cut, but House Republican leaders maneuvered to block final action.

“If he had to work the same kinds of jobs the rest of us do, I wonder how George Bush would feel about somebody taking away his overtime,” James Ware, a Washington, D.C., sous chef said at the Department of Labor (DOL) headquarters, where nearly 1,000 union members gathered to protest.

Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) authored the three measures to block the new regulations. He promised the crowd when Congress reconvenes in September, Democrats and moderate Republicans will continue the fight to block the pay cut.

The Aug. 23 rallies continued the year-and-a-half-long battle to save overtime pay. Workers have sent more than 1.6 million messages to the White House, Congress and the DOL protesting the assault on the nation’s wage and hour laws, according to the AFL-CIO. The labor federation promises to make the issue a major focus of its Sept. 2 mobilization when 25,000 union members will knock on 1 million doors the evening that the Republican National convention opens.

Working America, the AFL-CIO community affiliate for non-union workers, offers a lawyer on line on their website, workingamerica.org, to advise workers if their overtime pay is endangered by the new rules.

Other Bush schemes in the hopper include a plan to permit businesses to substitute “comp time” for pay, and to calculate overtime on a two-week, 80-hour basis. Both would increase work hours by making overtime work cheaper, EPI said.

Under the Fair Labor Standards Act, passed in 1938, workers must be paid one-and-a-half times their hourly rate for every hour over 40 worked in a given week. One of the goals of the FLSA was to eliminate 10- and 12-hour workdays by making employers pay a penalty. With this disincentive gone, the new Bush regulations threaten not only to cut pay, but also bolster the trend of longer hours for American workers.

The author can be reached at rwood@pww.org.