Going over overtime


THE U.S. SENATE was right to call a timeout on the Department of Labor's revisions to overtime law.

Announced by Labor Secretary Elaine L. Chao in March, the rules would change which jobs qualify for overtime, expanding extra pay for some lower-paid workers and eliminating it for some higher-paid ones. It is unclear, though, how many workers would be affected, and many of those who labor under these laws are rightly worried.

About 11.6 million workers earned overtime pay in 2000, according to the Labor Department. Under the new rules, the department estimates, 1.3 million people would join the overtime-eligibility list, while only 640,000 would fall off. But analysts at the nonpartisan Economic Policy Institute estimate the changes would benefit fewer than 737,000 people while eliminating overtime eligibility for at least 8 million others.

Why the cavernous difference? It's in the detail, or lack of such, in the new regulations.

For example, consider who might be classified as "learned professional employees without college degrees." When toting its figures, Labor defined them as people who have worked in their field for at least six years and thus have learned as much as those holding a degree in that field. But the regulations themselves do not require any minimum time of service - it's unclear who would be setting the standard, job by job. Set at six years of experience, 440,000 chefs, cooks and sous chefs would lose the chance to earn overtime; at two or three years, the majority of the 2.1 million of them would do so. Scant comfort for them, or for those working as social workers, lab techs and what the department refers to as "knowledge workers," among others.

Labor is still sifting through about 80,000 e-mails and letters it received during the 90-day comment period that ended in June. Ms. Chao has said the department would revise the rules based on the comments, ideally making them clearer and less lawsuit-prone, then would set them into effect, perhaps as soon as early next year.

Perhaps the department has already clarified the "learned professional" section. But it should explain the changes to Congress, workers and employers well before it launches them.

Companies and workers already feel plenty of pressures in the new-style jobless economic recovery. Changing the ground rules of the workplace is bound to feel like another earthquake.

Congress enacted the Fair Labor Standards Act 65 years ago, and extended it to state and local governments 18 years ago. It has added and altered exemption rules from time to time. It has not authorized Labor to reinvent the rules, though the department can and must make the present ones easier to follow. If this proposed rewrite does so drastically rearrange the work lives of some 8 million people, the legislative branch should have first and final say in the matter.

The current rules on who is exempt from earning overtime and who is not are cumbersome and confusing. A change is welcome, but it must be clearer and fair to both workers and their employers.

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