The same crowd that gave us the Clear
Skies Initiative, allowing utilities to pollute more freely, and the Healthy Forests Initiative, unleashing timber companies
in our national forests, now is turning its tender mercies to the rules governing overtime pay for American workers.
The Bush administration claims that
it simply wants to give employers clearer guidance as to who is eligible for time-and-a-half overtime pay.
Don't be fooled. The administration's
radical rewrite of overtime rules is designed to strip up to 8 million workers of their right to fair compensation. It is
a stealth attack on the 40-hour workweek, pushed aggressively by the administration without a single public hearing.
The administration would effectively
end overtime pay in dozens of occupations, including nurses, police officers, firefighters, clerical workers, air-traffic
controllers, social workers and journalists.
Indeed, the new criteria for excluding
employees from overtime are deliberately vague and elastic, so as to stretch across vast swaths of the salaried workforce.
It is ironic that America's first-responders, working long hours to protect us from terrorist threats, would be among those
denied their overtime rights.
Since passage of the Fair Labor Standards
Act in 1938, overtime rights and the 40-hour workweek have been sacrosanct respected by presidents of both parties. But nothing,
it seems, is sacred to the Bush administration. These radical revisions are anti-worker and anti-family. For 65 years, the
40-hour workweek has allowed workers to spend time with their families, instead of toiling past dark and on weekends. At a
time when "family dinner" is becoming an oxymoron, this standard is more important than ever.
The timing of this attack on overtime
is yet another instance of Bush's economic malpractice. Bear in mind that time-and-a-half pay accounts for some 25 percent
of the total income of Americans who work overtime.
With average U.S. incomes declining
and our consumer-driven economy teetering, the proposed changes would slash the paychecks of millions of white-collar workers.
Moreover, the proposed change won't
create one new job. In fact, it will do the opposite. If employers can more easily deny overtime pay, they will simply push
their current employees to work longer hours without compensation. With nine million Americans currently out of work, why
give employers yet another disincentive to hire new workers?
It is tragic that, as U.S. corporations
continue to export tens of thousands of jobs each month, we now propose to import third-world-style labor standards for the
remaining U.S. workforce.
The administration has proposed to
increase from $8,060 to $22,100 the threshold below which overtime pay is guaranteed the first increase since 1975. To keep
pace with inflation, the threshold actually needs to be raised to nearly $30,000. Nonetheless, the administration can and
should act immediately to raise the threshold, rather than holding this action hostage to a broader rollback of overtime rights
for white-collar workers.
The Senate and House, with bipartisan
majorities, have approved my amendment to the labor appropriations bill to block implementation of the new rules. Bush who
has never vetoed an appropriations bill now threatens to veto this bill in order to sustain his attack on overtime rights.
His zeal is misguided. We can modernize America's overtime rules without taking away the overtime right of those who currently
Harkin is a U.S. senator, D-Iowa.
1996-2003 Knight Ridder