GOP blocks vote that would preserve overtime pay

Realizing they would lose an up-or-down vote on preserving workers’ overtime pay, the Senate’s ruling Republicans used parliamentary maneuvers to block it on March 24.

The practical impact of the Senate GOP’s move was to clear the way for Bush administration plans to cut overtime pay eligibility for 8 million to 10 million workers to take effect by the end of March.

The new rules would deny overtime pay to any worker who had even minimal “supervisory” or “administrative” duties and who earned more than $22,100 a year. That would harm millions of workers, including Fire Fighters, police, EMTs, broadcasters, nurses, social workers and funeral service workers, according to the Economic Policy Institute and the Minnesota AFL-CIO, among others.

The average worker involved earns $51,000-$55,000 yearly, including overtime, EPI says, or around $1,000 a week. With overtime pay at a little more than one-fourth of the worker’s earnings, he or she would lose $256 weekly, it adds.

In the Senate, the key sequence occurred when Majority Whip Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., tried to strip overtime pay protection from a business tax bill. Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, a Bush appointee, had her department draft the overtime pay ban at White House urging.

Senate Democrats launched a talkathon against McConnell’s maneuver and the GOP tried to stop their filibuster. Stopping it would kill the overtime pay protection measure, promoted by Sen. Thomas Harkin, D-Iowa.

Labor lobbied hard for Harkin’s pro-overtime amendment and against McConnell’s plan to kill it. Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., summarized the GOP attitude towards the overtime-protection plan. He called it “irrelevant.”

The GOP needed 60 votes to halt the filibuster and dump Harkin’s overtime pay protection plan. They got 51, and then yanked the bill, turning to other business. Harkin promised to tack the overtime pay protection plan onto other legislation.

That left the Labor Department free to issue overtime pay ban rules. Spokeswoman Pamela Groover reiterated they would be out by the end of March and include a timeline for compliance.

“This is about creating jobs or losing jobs,” Harkin said just before the Senate voted. “That is what overtime is about… It does not take a genius to figure it out.

“Common sense dictates if an employer can work you for longer hours per week and not have to pay you overtime, that is exactly what they will do, and they will not hire any new workers.

“How can any senator stand here and say with a straight face that an amendment aimed at protecting overtime pay for millions of workers is extraneous to a jobs bill?” Harkin asked. The GOP portrayed the business tax bill as a “jobs-creation” bill.

“This is from The Wall Street Journal and this says it all: ‘While employees like overtime pay, a lot of employers do not,'” Harkin added.

He also pointed out that companies now cheat workers of millions of dollars of overtime pay they legally should get. Quoting an employer-funded thinktank, Harkin said if Bush’s Labor Department fully enforced present overtime pay rules, then workers would get an additional $19 billion yearly.

And he cited a federal court in Oregon that, last Dec. 19, ordered the nation’s largest company, Wal-Mart, to pay overtime to its workers there. Wal-Mart had locked them in the stores and refused to pay them for the extra hours.

Last year, both the GOP-run House and the GOP-run Senate approved Harkin’s amendment protecting overtime, and inserted it into a money bill for the Labor Department. But yielding to Bush and business, GOP congressional negotiators dumped overtime pay protection from the final version of that bill.

“The American people spoke, and I can say with no uncertainty that the vast majority of them want their overtime pay protected,” Harkin noted. In a recent poll, he added, protecting overtime won by a 74 percent-14 percent margin.

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