James Clay Fuller

Things We're Not Supposed to Say

Wednesday, January 07, 2004

Class War 1

The Bush Labor Department revealed months ago that it is revamping its rules so that companies can avoid paying many employees overtime for extra hours worked. The new rules are to go into effect in March.

Think of it as the Wal-Marting of America.

The Bushies claim that “only” about 640,000 workers will lose their right to overtime pay. But, they say, the new rules will make about 1.3 million low-income workers – some, but far from all, people working at least 40 hours a week and making less than $22,100 a year -- eligible for overtime pay for the first time.

Try not to be too surprised: Some very knowledgeable people say the numbers from Labor Secretary Elaine Chao and her flacks are as phony as the claim that Halliburton Co. receives no special treatment from the Pentagon. Some within the government have said that close to three million people may find themselves newly “exempt” from the right to collect overtime. The figure generally used by labor unions is eight million.

But suspend rational thought for a minute and pretend Chao’s figures are correct. Then go to the next step, heavily reported in newspapers around the country on Jan 6. The figures, it seems, don’t take into account the Bush Labor Department’s new corporate aid program.

Turns out that the department is advising corporations on how to avoid paying overtime to those low-income workers. It has established an outreach program for employers to teach them to use neat little gimmicks built into the new rules so that they can, for example, require employees to work longer hours just to earn what they have been making in 40 hours – in fact, achieving a cut in their employees’ hourly pay rates.

There already is talk of legal challenges, but Chao has made it clear her department is ready to defend it’s actions.

SIDELIGHT: Haven’t seen this mentioned anywhere, but it seems obvious that workers who no longer can claim overtime pay will be at the mercy of their employers, who can require them to work longer hours at will. The Administration will claim that there are legal protections against such demands, but that’s nonsense. We all know that anyone who refuses to work when the boss wants him or her to work will be in trouble, and almost certainly out of a job before long.

Millions of low-pay workers have to hold down two and even three jobs to keep their families minimally fed, clothed and housed. If your first employer frequently makes you stay on beyond your (previously) normal hours, you may get into trouble for being too often late for your second job; you may not be able to hold that second job.

It’s going to make things harder for the people who already are being stomped on.

PUBLIC SERVICE THOUGHT: Given the real focus of the Bush Labor Department, it would be nice if people around the country set up contests for a new and more appropriate name for the agency. The possibilities are endless: Department of Corporate Coddling, War on Labor Department, Department for Repaying Corporate Contributors or my personal favorite to date: Department of Homeland Insecurity.

Charge a small entry fee and donate the cash to your local food shelves. They’re already hurting, and the demand for their services is growing rapidly.