Obama to seek a broad expansion of overtime

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Posted: Wednesday, March 12, 2014 12:00 am

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama this week will seek to force U.S. businesses to pay more overtime to millions of workers, the latest move by his administration to confront corporations that have had soaring profits even as wages have stagnated.

On Thursday, the president will direct the Labor Department to revamp its regulations to require overtime pay for several million additional fast-food managers, loan officers, computer technicians and others whom many businesses currently classify as “executive or professional” employees to avoid paying them overtime, according to White House officials briefed on the announcement.

Obama’s decision to use his executive authority to change the nation’s overtime rules is aimed at bypassing Republicans in Congress, who have already blocked most of the president’s economic agenda and have said they intend to fight his proposal to raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10 per hour from $7.25.

Obama’s action is certain to anger the business lobby in Washington, which has long fought for maximum flexibility for companies in paying overtime. In 2004, business groups persuaded President George W. Bush’s administration to allow them greater latitude on exempting salaried white-collar workers from overtime pay, even as organized labor objected.

Conservatives criticized Obama’s impending action.

“There’s no such thing as a free lunch,” said Daniel Mitchell, a senior fellow with the Cato Institute, who warned that employers might cut pay or use fewer workers. “If they push through something to make a certain class of workers more expensive, something will happen to adjust.”

Marc Freedman, the executive director of labor law policy for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said the nation’s overtime rules “affect a very wide cross section of employers and our members.”

“I expect this is an area we will be very much engaged in,” Freedman said.

Obama’s authority to act comes from his ability as president to revise the rules that carry out the Fair Labor Standards Act, which Congress originally passed in 1938. Bush and previous presidents used similar tactics at times to work around opponents in Congress.

Under current federal regulations, workers who are deemed executive, administrative or professional employees can be denied overtime pay under a so-called white-collar exemption.

Currently, employers are prohibited from denying time-and-a-half overtime pay to any salaried worker who makes less than $455 per week. Obama’s directive would significantly increase that salary level.

In addition, Obama will try to change rules that allow employers to define which workers are exempt from receiving overtime based on the kind of work they perform. Under current rules, if an employer declares that an employee’s primary responsibility is executive, such as overseeing a cleanup crew, then that worker can be exempted from overtime.

White House officials said those rules were sometimes abused by employers in an attempt to avoid paying overtime.

“Under current rules, it literally means that you can spend 95 percent of the time sweeping floors and stocking shelves, and if you’re responsible for supervising people 5 percent of the time, you can then be considered executive and be exempt,” said Ross Eisenbrey, a vice president of the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal research organization in Washington.

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