Eight million. That’s how many U.S. middle-class workers will be left without strong overtime pay protections under the Trump administration’s weak overtime rule proposed on March 22.
In human terms, that means 8 million working people across the 50 states can be made to work up to 50, 60 or even 70 hours a week, missing time with their families, without receiving any extra pay, even if they make as little as $35,000 a year.
The problem is the salary threshold below which workers are guaranteed time-and-a-half overtime pay when they work more than 40 hours in a week has been frozen for decades, with no adjustment for the rising cost of living. As a result, the share of salaried workers guaranteed overtime pay has plummeted from six in 10 in 1975 to less than one in 10 today.
The Trump administration claimed that the new overtime salary threshold is a win for workers, and many news outlets echoed the administration’s spin, declaring in headlines across the country that the Trump rule is an “expansion,” or at least a “compromise” on overtime pay. In reality, it is a significant rollback that will cheat millions of Americans of fair pay for hard work.
That’s because the Trump overtime regulation replaces a 2016 Obama-era Labor Department rule that would have restored overtime protections for more than 12 million salaried workers earning up to $55,055 by 2023. The Trump rule slashes that salary level to $35,308 — and treats workers earning more than that as if they were highly paid executive who don’t need overtime pay. All told, Trump’s decision to slash the salary threshold means workers will miss out on $1.2 billion in wages each year they would have received under the 2016 rule.
The overtime salary threshold is supposed to protect workers with little bargaining power — think of modestly paid front-line supervisors at fast food restaurants or discount stores — from being forced to work long hours for no pay.
Typical of them is Charney, who works as a salaried manager at a dollar store in Michigan. Most weeks she clocks 65 hours, missing dinner with her family and time with her kids, with no overtime pay for her long hours and dedication.
“I did the math, and I make 50 cents more than my assistant, who is eligible for overtime and gets holiday pay,” she told Truthout. “I work on average 30 hours a week more than my assistants. I feel completely taken advantage of.”
The Obama-era rule was a modest first step toward correcting a system that was increasingly leaving workers behind. It would have restored overtime coverage to about one in three salaried workers.
But despite an extensive rule-making process that lasted two years and included a quarter-million public comments driven by worker advocates, the Trump Labor Department abandoned it. U.S. workers have lost more than $1.6 billion in unpaid overtime as a result.
Unsurprisingly, the weak Trump overtime proposal is deeply unpopular with voters. New polling conducted by Hart Research in competitive congressional districts shows that voters in swing districts overwhelmingly support the stronger Obama-era overtime expansion (by a 76 to 16 margin) over the weak Trump substitute. Independents back the Obama proposal over the Trump substitute by a whopping 71 to 15 margin. Republicans prefer it 65-to-27, and Democrats 89-to-7.
Fortunately, states can and are stepping in to protect workers from the Trump overtime rollback. In many states, governors can raise the overtime salary threshold through action by their state labor departments without the need for legislation. Moreover, in every state, the legislature can act to protect overtime pay.
Labor departments in California and New York have already raised their states’ overtime salary thresholds significantly; Washington and Pennsylvania’s labor agencies are in the process of doing the same. Other proposals are pending in Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Maryland and Colorado.
In particular, state-level action can and should go beyond the Obama overtime standard, which was a minimal national benchmark based on salary levels in the Southern U.S., the nation’s lowest-wage region. Higher-wage states can increase their overtime salary thresholds to commensurate levels, as Washington and Massachusetts are currently proposing.
At his inauguration, President Trump pledged that “Every decision … will be made to benefit American workers.” But the administration’s rollback of overtime pay protections and its record of dismantling worker protections at every turn show whose side the administration is really on when it comes to middle-class families struggling for a decent paycheck.
In the 2018 midterms, overtime pay already emerged as a key issue in several races. The overwhelming voter opposition to the latest Trump rollback means it’s likely to be back in 2020 as voters consider which candidates have their interests at heart.