Every Conservative Argument Against Overtime, and Why They’re All Wrong

Paul Ryan says raising overtime wages will be an "absolute disaster." That's because Paul Ryan doesn't work for you—he works for the Koch brothers.

Paul Ryan says raising overtime wages will be an “absolute disaster.” That’s because Paul Ryan doesn’t work for you—he works for the Koch brothers.

Now that the Labor Department has announced the new overtime threshold, conservative pundits and politicians are responding. Unsurprisingly, they’re against it! But what is surprising is how bad their responses are. Let’s look at some of the most common responses and examine exactly why they’re terrible.

At Forbes, Andy Puzder, CEO of CKE Restaurants and “a member of the Job Creators Network,” huffs:

Turning highly sought-after entry level management careers into hourly jobs where employees punch a clock and are compensated for time spent rather than time well spent is hardly an improvement on the path from the working class to the middle class.

Now, I don’t know Andy Puzder’s personal biography, but he sure sounds like someone who has never had an entry level management job. Why else would he straight-facedly argue that a bullshit title is more coveted than actual compensation for actual hours worked? For decades, employers have given out management titles to their employees like candy, in exchange for many hours of unpaid labor. As we talked to many Seattle-area employees while working on our secure scheduling podcast, we even heard stories about employees who were fired because they didn’t accept a “promotion” from hourly pay to a salaried manager position, simply because those employers knew they could get someone else to do unpaid work. What the new overtime rule does is it reestablishes a basic American tenet: if you work more than 40 hours a week, you get compensated for that work. Doesn’t matter if your title is “assistant manager to the assistant manager of the deputy director of operations” or just “a barista” — those rules apply to you and to your employer.

Puzder also says:

Most employers incentivize their managers to run the businesses they manage like they own them with salaries and incentive compensation including performance-based bonuses rather than overtime pay.

This is a super-weird argument to make. This rule doesn’t require employers to take any rights or privileges away from their workers. It may demand a slight readjustment to how those funds are paid out: if, say, Best Buy was previously offering out “performance-based bonuses” for their salaried managers, they can simply reallocate those bonuses to overtime pay, or pay the best salaried managers more than $47,476 a year to put them above the overtime threshold.

All Puzder is basically complaining about here is having to change the way he does business. It’s a bad argument because American workers clearly cannot continue down the path that trickle downers have laid out for them over the last 40 years. Disappearing benefits, flat or sinking wages, and parasitic employment practices have resulted in mammoth inequality that threatens to tear this country apart. The “incentive compensation” route hasn’t worked out for the majority of us, partly because a lot of the money that used to go to wages has gone to corporate profits and the top one percent instead. Why not return to a system that worked back when the America was at its most prosperous, when every worker could count on certain secure standards?

Puzder then immediately shifts to an even less convincing argument:

Owners set their own hours and work the hours necessary using their best business judgment rather than a schedule set by a superior. For many beginning managers, this new rule will reduce or eliminate that flexibility…

The “flexibility” argument was also mirrored by House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who said the overtime rule will “require workers to fit their lives into a mold that bureaucrats impose, not what works best for them.” This is a scare tactic that doesn’t even make sense in this context, because the overtime rule doesn’t dictate when employees work, only how much they should make after they work 40 hours a week. People can still work the hours necessary at the time the work needs to be done; the only thing that changes is that if they work more than 40 hours a week, they have to be compensated for that time, rather than volunteering the time to their employers free of charge. Anyone who says this law would force schedules to change or be less flexible is either grossly uninformed about the law or lying to scare workers against the law.

McCarthy also claims that the law “will force employers to waste time and resources logging hours.” Carrie Lukas at the National Review agrees, warning in a post titled “Forcing More Workers to Punch a Clock Isn’t Progress” that employers will “face significant new compliance costs as they have to track more workers’ hours in order to assess when they qualify for overtime.”

Okay. We live in the 21st century, and many of us work on these wondrous devices called computers and smart phones, which provide employers with an astounding amount of information about exactly when and where we work. And employers like Starbucks and Target use highly sophisticated scheduling software to dictate their employees’ schedules down to the minute. Tracking employee schedules is no longer a burden, if in fact it ever was a burden; it’s the easiest thing in the world, and many employers already do it as a matter of course.

And if you think your employer isn’t already tracking the hours you work, you’re probably in for a rude awakening. Don’t believe me? Here’s a simple experiment: if you’re at a full-time job, start working less than 40 hours a week on a regular basis. See how long it takes for your boss to sit you down for a conversation about why you’re not working enough. I’m betting it won’t be very long.

After these very specific protestations, we start to move into the more general scare tactics that trickle-downers always drag out when someone suggests that their workers should be treated a little better. In a statement, Speaker Paul Ryan called the new overtime rules an “absolute disaster,” adding that it “hurts the very people it alleges to help.”

Oh, the workers. Whenever a minimum-wage increase is proposed or overtime is brought up or a regulation is suggested, conservative lawmakers suddenly seem to care a lot about the workers, especially minorities and women. Funny thing about this is they don’t ever seem to care about workers at any other time. They never bring up workers when they talk about cutting taxes for the wealthy. Paul Ryan didn’t to be helping minority unemployment numbers when he tried to deregulate banks last year. Nope! The only time Paul Ryan suddenly cares about workers is when he’s battling a law intended to compensate workers fairly for their time.

It’s a scam and an intimidation tactic: the scam is that Ryan claims to be for the little guy when he’s really concerned that the wealthy bosses won’t get record-breaking bonuses this year, and he’s trying to intimidate workers by arguing that their jobs will disappear if they’re fairly compensated. This threat has been rolled out every time workers get a break in America—Ryan’s predecessors argued that getting rid of child labor laws would cripple the economy—and these predictions have never come true.

When overtime has passed and Americans start getting larger paychecks, Ryan will never be challenged on his comment that overtime would cause “disaster.” Instead, he’ll be predicting another disaster for American workers somewhere else, and that disaster won’t ever come true, either. It’s a behavioral pattern that is as sickeningly predictable as it is dishonest. Unfortunately for Ryan, we’re starting to catch on to his trick. His warnings on overtime—along with those of McCarthy, Puzder, and Lukas—aren’t worthy of being taken seriously. They’re just the latest in a long line of phony trickle-down prophecies intended to prop up the one percent’s profit margins.

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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.