On Thursday (7/10), the House of Representatives, in an extremely close vote, rejected Democratic efforts to prevent proposed overtime regulations from going into effect. The 213-210 vote indicates that even some Republicans in labor-friendly districts understand the negative impact that these changes could have on their constituents. However, it’s not clear whether the Senate, considered to be the more progressive and least partisan of the two bodies, will take up the battle to overturn the proposed regulations–a battle that might be winnable.
As previously discussed here in the June 16 entry, proposed regulatory changes to the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) are likely to have the effect of forcing a large number of employees to work for longer hours without paying overtime compensation. For additional information on the proposed changes, see WF’s fair overtime page page. The Department of Labor (DOL) invited public comment on the proposed regulations, with the comment period expiring on June 30, 2003.
Ask and ye shall receive: the DOL received an estimated 75,000 to 100,000 comments from the public on the overtime proposal (including many sent through the Workplace Fairness Action Center)–the most ever received by DOL on an issue submitted for public comments (See Sun-Sentinel article.) Many organizations sought to activate their public constituencies on this issue, and apparently succeeded: one article reports that three-fourths of the comments are from workers and worker representatives, while only one-fourth were from businesses. (See Kansas City Star article. The sheer number of comments indicates that this is an issue about which many American workers feel very strongly.
However, the Department of Labor is under no obligation to take seriously any of the comments received, nor take into account the fact that a three-quarters majority oppose some or all of the proposed changes. Nor do the comments require Congressional approval. They could go into effect by the end of this year without any further changes or additional consideration, even though some experts fear the changes might be delayed. The process the proposed changes will follow now is as follows, according to DOL spokesman Ed Frank: The Labor Department will review the comments, consider whether to make any changes to address them and forward them to the Office of Management and Budget. The OMB then has 90 days to review the proposal. A final proposal could then be placed in the Federal Register, and the rules could become effective 30 to 90 days later. Thus, it appears the rules could easily be implemented before early 2004. (See Memphis Commercial Appeal article.)
The possibility that the rules could be enacted without any further changes caused House Democrats to try to put on the brakes by amending the Department of Labor’s appropriation bill before Congress last week. Attaching such amendments to appropriations bills is a common strategy, as it puts the President in the difficult position of denying the agency the funding it needs to exist to do its work, or accepting the unpopular amendment in order to enable the appropriation. President Bush had threatened to veto the Labor appropriations bill, rather than accept the Democratic amendment. (See AP article.)
Groups on both sides lobbied Congress heavily prior to Thursday’s vote. (See Washington Post article.) At the end of the showdown between labor and business interests, three Democrats joined Republicans in opposing the amendment, while fourteen Republicans joined Democratic colleagues in voting for the amendment. (see WXXI article.)
What happens now? Several articles reported that the same strategy could be tried in the Senate, although some skepticism was expressed as to whether the tactic was likely to succed there. But what if the Senate heard from the 75-100,000 workers who commented on the original proposal? I think the Senate, accountable to its constituency in a way that the Department of Labor is not, would sit up and take notice. However, if the American public cannot sustain a continued opposition to the regulations, then decades of wage and hour laws are likely to be blithely discarded with no further changes to tip the proposal any more in favor of workers who depend on overtime for additional income, and the threat of overtime pay for reasonable family time.
Oppose the Labor Department’s Overtime Changes: Ask the Senate to Overrule the Proposed Changes