The Grinch that Stole Labor Day
by Greg Palast
August 30, 2003
In celebration of the working person's holiday, Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao has announced the Bush Administration's plan to end the 60-year-old law which requires employers to pay time-and-a-half for overtime.
I'm sure you already knew that -- if you happened to have run across page 15,576 of the Federal Register.
According to the Register, where the Bush Administration likes to place its little gifts to major campaign donors, 2.7 million workers will lose their overtime pay -- for a "benefit" of $1.53 billion. I put "benefit" in quotes because, in the official cost-benefit analysis issued by Bush's Labor Department, the amount employers will now be able to slice out of workers' pockets is tallied on the plus side of the rules change.
Nevertheless, workers getting their pay snipped shouldn't complain, because they will all be receiving promotions. These employees will be re-classified as managers exempt from the law. The change is promoted by the National Council of Chain Restaurants. You've met these 'managers' - they're the ones in the beanies and aprons whose management decisions are, "Hold the lettuce on that."
My favorite of Chao's little amendments would re-classify as "exempt professionals" anyone who learned their skill in the military. In other words, thousands of veterans will now lose overtime pay. I just can't understand why Bush didn't announce that one when he landed on the aircraft carrier.
Now I should say that, according to Chao's press office, the changes will actually extend overtime benefits to 1.3 million burger flippin' managers. How does that square with the billion dollar "benefit" to business owners? Simple: The Chao hounds at the Labor Department suggest that employers CUT WAGES so that, with the new "overtime" pay, the employees won't actually take home a dime more.
I can hear the moaners and bleeding hearts saying, this sounds like the Labor Department is telling Big Business how to evade the law. Yep, that's what the Department is doing. Right there on page 15,576 of the Federal Register it says,
"Affected employers would have four choices concerning potential payroll costs: (4) converting salaried employees' basis of pay to an hourly rate that result in virtually no changes to the total compensation paid those workers."
And in case some employer is dense as a president and doesn't get the hint, Madame Chao repeats, " The fourth choice above results in virtually no (or only a minimal) increase in labor costs."
For decades, the courts have thrown the book at cheapskate bosses who chisel workers out of legal overtime by cutting base pay this way but now they'll have a new defense: Bush made me do it.
But then, there won't be any cases against employers, because Chao is the labor cop that is supposed to stop paycheck theft. She's well qualified for the job. Her resume reads, "Married to Republican Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky." I called her press office to ask if she qualifies for overtime, but they'd left the office early.
And good news for our sporting President. Word from the White House is he'll be golfing on the Labor Day weekend. Under Chao's rules, he need not worry if he wants to replay that hole. "Exempt professionals" who cannot earn overtime - once defined as doctors, lawyers and those with specialized college degrees - will now include anyone who provides skilled advice like caddies ("You might try the other end of the club, Mr. President").
Finally, on this Labor Day weekend, it's time this nation took a cold look at the issue of hard-core unemployment. Neo-conservatives have warned us about families that pass on joblessness from generation to generation.
Take, for example, the sad case of the Bush family. When Poppy Bush was president, unemployment hit a generational high of over 9 million Americans. Bill Clinton, through education and hard work, put more than 3 million of those citizens back on the job.
Now Bush Junior, repeating his family pattern of joblessness, has presided over the return of unemployment for 9 million Americans.
This was not unexpected, sociologists warn us. Hard core unemployment, through failed schooling and a don't-care attitude, takes on a nearly genetic character. The acorn falls only so far from the tree. Especially when the nut falls on its head.
Greg Palast is author of the NY Times bestseller The Best Democracy Money Can Buy (Penguin USA 2003) and the worstseller, Democracy and Regulation, a guide to electricity deregulation published by the United Nations (2003, written with T. MacGregor and J. Oppenheim). See Greg Palast's award-winning reports for BBC Television and the Guardian papers of Britain at www.GregPalast.com. Contact Palast at his New York office: firstname.lastname@example.org.