The Senate voted yesterday to block work rule changes proposed by the Bush administration that labor leaders say could deprive up to 8 million American workers - from nurses to firefighters to middle managers - of overtime rights.
The 54-45 vote was a rare victory for Democrats in a Congress with Republican majorities in both houses, and they didn't hesitate to crow.
"I'm proud that 53 of my colleagues joined me today to stop the administration from stripping overtime protection from 8 million workers," said Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat and co-sponsor of the amendment.
"America's nurses, police officers, firefighters and medical technicians work hard every day to serve our communities," she said. "We depend on them to save lives. They depend on overtime pay to make ends meet. This legislation makes sure that workers who put in extra hours take home extra pay."
The Labor Department, which drafted the proposed rule changes, said they would qualify about 1.3 million low-income workers for overtime pay while making 640,000 white-collar workers ineligible.
Republican congressional leaders predicted that House negotiators would reject the amendment, and the White House has warned that President Bush would veto the Senate version of legislation revising the Fair Labor Standards Act should it reach his desk.
The Democratic amendment allows regulations that would increase the number of workers eligible for overtime when they work more than 40 hours in a week, but blocks any that would disqualify workers now eligible for time-and-a-half pay.
One Democrat in the Senate voted against the amendment, and six Republicans voted for it. The measure is attached to a $472 billion bill that funds the Departments of Education, Labor, and Health and Human Services.
The Republican-controlled House already has acted once to reject Democrats' efforts to stop the proposed changes with a 213-210 vote in July, and is expected to oppose it again when House and Senate negotiators meet to reconcile their competing versions of the funding bill before it goes to Bush.
But Democrats could block the final agreement if their language is removed. To overcome those objections and pass the bill, Republicans would have to muster 60 Senate votes - far more support than they had yesterday.
U.S. Secretary of Labor Elaine L. Chao said in a statement yesterday that her department would continue to work on the overtime reform.
"The department is reviewing the public comments that have been submitted," Chao said. "We strongly believe these comments deserve careful consideration and that the regulatory process should move forward to benefit workers."
Some labor economists say the proposed rules are dangerous for middle-income workers because businesses can more easily deprive them of overtime pay by placing them in professional, administrative or executive categories. Companies could, for instance, use work experience to qualify employees for professional status that formerly required a degree.
"They've changed the requirements to treat all kinds of people who have little more than a high school education as professionals and therefore exempt, therefore not entitled to overtime pay," said Ross Eisenbrey, vice president and policy director of the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal Washington think tank.
Under proposed updates to the Fair Labor Standards Act:
Anyone earning $22,100 a year or less automatically qualifies for overtime. (This number is a large increase from the current threshold of $8,060 year - the biggest jump since the Fair Labor Standards Act was enacted in 1938.)
Salaried workers earning more than $65,000 a year are exempt from overtime pay if they meet one of several job descriptions, such as performing office and nonmanual work.
Workers earning between $22,100 and $65,000 a year might be exempt from earning overtime pay, depending on the duties they perform.
The Labor Department estimates that raising the minimum under which employers are required to pay overtime to $22,100 will guarantee overtime to 1.3 million workers who are not currently eligible and could cost employers as much as $895 million.
But Eisenbrey of the Economic Policy Institute said the Labor Department has inflated its numbers and that far fewer than 1.3 million workers would be helped by the proposed changes.
"I can say with certitude that their number is made up and wrong," Eisenbrey said. "There may not be even a quarter of a million people who are helped by the rule, but certainly there are no more than 700,000."
Business advocacy groups criticized the Democrats' move, saying the Labor Department's proposed changes would clarify vague and outdated rules and help employers figure out who is eligible for overtime.
Tracy Mullin, president and chief executive of the National Retail Federation in Washington, said the Senate should have waited for the Labor Department to finish reviewing public comments and make a final proposal before passing judgment.
"Today's vote was a slap in the face for the 1.3 million low-income, hard-working Americans who would have gained overtime pay under the Department of Labor update," Mullin said in a statement. "Supporters of the ... amendment showed that they were more interested in supporting labor unions than in supporting workers."
Meanwhile, labor groups were pleased with the outcome. John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO, called the Senate vote a "tremendous victory" for working Americans.
"Workers depend on the existing overtime pay guarantees to make sure they have the time they need to spend with their families and the income they need to spend on their families," Sweeney said in a statement. "The Labor Department's proposed rules would strike a blow against working families, directly ending critical overtime pay protections for millions of workers, and making them less secure for millions more."
Sun staff writer Julie Hirschfeld Davis contributed to this article.