Labor unions fighting the Bush administration's overtime proposal enlisted help from veterans Thursday, contending many would lose the premium pay if they had received training in the military for white-collar jobs they now hold.

"That's not a way to thank people for what they've done for this country," said Chris Owens, policy director for the AFL-CIO (search).

The administration rejected the criticism.

"It's reprehensible to try to demoralize veterans and those who are in harm's way with false information about their civilian pay rights," said Assistant Labor Secretary Victoria Lipnic. "This is a new low in the disinformation campaign against the Department of Labor's (searchproposal to strengthen overtime pay protections for workers."

The AFL-CIO waged a big legislative campaign to block the proposal in Congress. That effort ultimately failed when congressional budget negotiators bowed to White House demands, but unions pledged to continue fighting.

The Labor Department expects to issue a final rule in March, and approval by Congress is not needed. The plan was proposed last spring after employers complained they were saddled with costly lawsuits filed by workers who claimed they were unfairly denied overtime pay.

But the regulations have stirred debate over how many workers would be stripped of their right to overtime pay. And, in this election year, the veterans issue may resonate with members of the public and politicians sympathetic to Americans serving in the military in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Department officials say about 644,000 higher-paid workers would lose their overtime eligibility. But the proposal itself says 1.5 million to 2.7 million workers "will be more readily identified as exempt" from overtime requirements. Labor unions say the figure is about 8 million.

The proposal would let employers count military training, work experience and studies at technical schools and community colleges when classifying workers as professionals who are exempt from overtime pay. Professionals also perform office work.

Currently, the test for a professional requires "knowledge of an advanced type in a field of science or learning that is customarily required by a prolonged course of specialized intellectual instruction and academic education."

The current law says the types of jobs that meet that criteria and are not eligible for overtime are law, medicine, nursing, accounting, architecture, teaching and science-related occupations.

The Labor Department in its proposal added theology, actuarial computation, engineering and pharmacy jobs. It also singled out as examples registered or certified medical technologists, dental hygienists, physician assistants and executive chefs.

Randy Fleming, an engineering technician at Boeing Co.'s metrology lab near Wichita, Kan., served in the Air Force and got the training he now uses in his current job. He also currently qualifies for overtime and is covered by a union contract.

But he worries that if employers are allowed to count his military experience, he will lose his overtime pay when his union contract expires.

"I do not understand how the government can come back on me at this time," said Fleming, whose overtime pay equals about $35 an hour.