Uncertainty over overtime

Chicago Tribune: For a year the U.S. Department of Labor has been trying to update cumbersome federal overtime regulations last overhauled when Harry Truman was in the White House.
Disbelief is an acceptable reaction. You may wonder why federal bureaucrats are in the business of determining which American workers should get time-and-a-half pay after working a 40-hour week. That started in 1938 when the Fair Labor Standards Act was adopted. Under the act, workers in certain career and income categories generally are entitled to overtime pay after 40 hours unless they are paid a salary rather than hourly compensation -- and work in administrative, executive or professional jobs.
The business community -- particularly retailers, restaurant and other small business owners -- has been pleading for an overhaul. The outdated rules, the businesses argued, were creating confusion about overtime eligibility, and that was prompting a surge in worker lawsuits.
The Bush administration set off a firestorm last year when it tried to modernize these rules. Labor groups suspected a plot to deprive workers of pay. Tuesday, the Labor Department scaled back its proposed changes to mollify the critics.
In truth it appears that more, not fewer, workers now will be eligible for overtime pay. Labor says workers who earn less than $23,660 a year will automatically be eligible for overtime pay. The current, decades-old threshold is $8,060. The new threshold means 1.3 million workers who do not now receive overtime will be eligible.
Workers making more than $100,000 who regularly perform some administrative, executive or professional duties will no longer automatically be eligible for overtime. This change will affect 107,000 workers, the government says.
The new rules also make it crystal clear that police officers, firefighters, emergency medical technicians, other "first responders," military veterans and all workers covered by union contracts would still be eligible for overtime.
These rules aren't perfect. They still run to 500 pages. But the rules have been welcomed by many business owners because they will, finally, provide some certainty on this issue.
"Employers have spent too many years trying to shoehorn modern jobs into regulations that haven't been updated since Elvis was a teenager," said Katherine Lugar, a vice president of the National Retail Federation.
The changes still haven't been enough to satisfy all critics. Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry charged they "strike a severe blow to what little economic security working families have left as a result of (President) Bush's failed policies."
Granted, the question of who gets overtime pay certainly qualifies as a debatable issue in an election year. But the overhaul is long overdue.

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