Oregon workers spared cut in overtime pay — for now

A much-criticized change in overtime pay won’t be coming to Oregon, says Bureau of Labor and Industries Commissioner Dan Gardner. In an Aug. 23 announcement alongside U.S. Representative Earl Blumenauer and Oregon AFL-CIO President Tim Nesbitt, Gardner said Oregon labor law goes farther than the federal law, and that he intends to enforce it to the benefit of workers.

The announcement was in reaction to a controversial rule change by the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) which went into effect that day in other parts of the country. DOL is responsible for interpreting and enforcing the Fair Labor Standards Act, which requires that employers pay “time-and-a-half” for hours worked over 40 in a week. But the law contains certain exceptions for managers and professionals. And the Bush Administration department announced last year that it was going to change the definitions of managers and professionals, a change long sought by some employers.

The change could help workers making under $23,660 a year who are currently classified as managers or professionals: Those workers will have to be paid overtime now if they work more than 40 hours a week.

But the change could harm many other workers who earn OVER $23,660 a year. “Team leaders” who oversee the work of others can now be considered managers. And workers without college degrees can now be considered professionals because employers could count work experience instead of a degree. Occupations affected include nursery and pre-school teachers; supervisors in fast-food restaurants, lodging and retail; chefs; computer programmers; and workers in financial services.

DOL has said no more than 107,000 workers would lose overtime pay under the new regulations, but economists in the Economic Policy Institute estimated the number could be as many as six million workers.

Unions have vigorously opposed the change.

Nesbitt called the new rules “an invitation to corporations to work their employees longer for less pay.”

“American workers work longer hours than their counterparts in the rest of the industrialized world,” Nesbitt said. “They deserve to be rewarded for their hard work, not penalized for it.”

He predicted that now that the federal standards have been lowered, employers will pressure state legislatures to lower their standards to the federal level.

Employers lobbying for the federal change included Boeing, Verizon, McDonalds, the National Association of Mortgage Brokers, the Mass Retail Association, and Columbia Helicopter.

In Congress, there have been numerous attempts to pass a law overriding the rule change. In May, the Senate passed two amendments that would repeal the parts of the new regulation that restrict overtime eligibility. But Republican leadership in the House of Representatives has blocked debate or a vote on the amendments.

“These regulations add further insult to the injuries inflicted on middle-class working families over the past three and a half years,” Blumenauer said. “At a time when middle-income families are feeling the pinch of the administration’s failed economic policies, it is unthinkable that the Department of Labor is proposing overtime regulations that cut the pay that families depend on.”

“We need to remember our history,” Gardner said, “and the purpose of this law was to spread the work among the largest number of workers, and to make the employer pay a legitimate premium for taking that worker away from family beyond 40 hours a week.

“In cases where it is unclear which set of rules better protects workers, I intend to exercise my authority to look out for the interests of Oregon workers.”

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