Late is better than never

September 14, 2004

ONCE AGAIN, the House has voted to block new Labor Department rules on who qualifies for overtime pay. This time, though, it cannot be an empty gesture. Most of these new rules need to change, and the sooner the better.

Nobody argues with the part of the regulations that raises the annual salary under which workers are guaranteed overtime from $8,060 to $23,660. It's the part where businesses can redefine thousands of people into expansive professional categories - thus disqualifying them from guaranteed overtime - that has raised hackles.

The new rules went into effect Aug. 23, so there hasn't been much fallout yet. Some midsize and large companies weren't yet ready to change how they pay their employees, according to a survey by consultants Hewitt Associates. Others, though, already have plans to use the new definition for "creative professional" to deny overtime to reporters and line cooks. White-collar group leaders and retail-floor supervisors could find themselves "administrators" or "executives" and lose their chance to earn overtime - though their employers could demand they work longer hours anyway.

Overtime - extra pay - is the tradeoff for spending extra hours at work instead of at home with the kids or at recreational pursuits. Many workers, especially those with families, count on OT to make ends meet. Most count on it as a signal that the work week is finite, that companies don't own them, that everyone is allowed a private life.

Revising the regulations, first written in 1938 and only slightly modified since, was meant to bring them in line with the current workplace. But even in this workaholic culture, with its emphasis on fewer people and greater productivity, giving up on the 40-hour week goes too far.

The Senate voted last year to block the rules, and the House passed a nonbinding vote to do the same. But that provision was stripped from the final version of another spending bill. This time, 22 Republicans with strong labor ties joined 200 Democrats and one independent in a second attempt to block the rules, attached as an amendment to a health, education and jobs spending bill. GOP leaders are expected to kill the amendment again in a conference, to save President Bush from having to make good on his threat to veto the bill if it gets to his desk with the overtime rules attached.

But those Republicans who voted for the amendment - presumably to curry favor with their constituents - should lean on their cohorts in the Senate and the White House to make sure those votes are more than a game of pretend. Going back to the old regulations while revamping these questionable categories would be hard enough now, as companies are starting to enforce them. The longer it takes, the harder it will be.

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