One Hundred and Six Congressional Republicans Come Out Against Overtime

H-1087_txt_USEngOne hundred and six congressional Republicans and two Democrats have sent an open letter (PDF) to Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez protesting the Department of Labor’s new proposed overtime rules. (You can read more about overtime rules in this post by Nick Hanauer, but in brief the new regulations would increase the salary threshold from $23,600 a year to $50,440, benefitting at least 13.5 million American workers.) Their letter is about as ominous as it gets.

Currently, employers are required to pay overtime for all employees who make $23,660 or less per year. The new rule, proposed by DOL’s Wage and Hour Division, would raise the salary threshold and require employers to pay overtime for all employees who make $50,440 or less per year. With the implementation of the rule, nearly 5 million employees would suddenly become eligible for overtime pay. This 113 percent increase in the salary threshold would place a large burden on business owners and their workers, and is a major departure from previous DOL policy.

To be clear, they’re arguing that American business owners can’t afford to pay their employees for their time—that if businesses had to pay their employees for the true number of hours that they work, the whole system would collapse. This is not American exceptionalism. It’s fear-mongering, and it’s just not true.

And the last suggestion in that quote, that raising the threshold is “a major departure from previous DOL policy,” is simply not true. Fifty years ago, more than sixty percent of all American workers qualified for overtime pay. But because the threshold has stayed stagnant for all that time, only eight percent of all Americans qualify today. And we’re working harder than ever: Americans work 47 hours a week on average. The new overtime rule wouldn’t bring anything new to the business paradigm in America; it would simply unrig the game.

The threats in this letter are purposefully vague and amorphous. They warn of “unintended consquences”—you mean like the bad old prosperous days of the 1960s, when we had a healthy overtime threshold?—and threaten that businesses might suffer if they have to pay their employees appropriately for the amount of time worked. They complain that the DOL asks questions about how to enact the duties test—uh, asking questions is how good policy is made—and they also lament the fact that these “changes would force businesses to expend even more time and money to adapt to the new rules,” which is downright silly. Yes, in America we do require businesses to understand and abide by the law. If you own a business and you don’t adapt to the law, you’re going to be penalized. This is not an undue burden; it’s the cost of living in a society.

Look, I get that Republicans are all about the trickle down economics, that they want the money to go to the richest Americans at the expense of the poorest Americans. But vague threats like the ones you’ll find in this letter aren’t doing the trick anymore. If you want to convince Americans to give up the wages that they’ve earned, you’re going to have to find a better, more convincing argument than “scary things are going to happen.” History demonstrates that smart overtime regulations can supercharge an economy, putting more money into the pockets of workers, who’ll then spend it on local businesses. We want more of that.

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Paul Constant
Paul Constant has written about politics, books, and film for Newsweek, The Progressive, the Utne Reader, and alternative weeklies around the country.