Bush Administration Revising Overtime Eligibility

Retreating under pressure, the Bush administration intends to revise a proposed overtime (search) regulation to preserve eligibility for most white-collar workers making up to $100,000 a year as well as for police, firefighters and other first responders, Republican officials said Monday.

The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said revisions also would guarantee overtime for lower-wage workers making less than $23,660 a year, up from the $22,100 initially proposed.

Labor Secretary Elaine Chao (search) is expected to preview the new proposals Tuesday, the sources said. A spokeswoman for the department said she was unaware of any plans to issue a regulation.

Chao issued a proposed regulation in March 2003, but it drew sustained criticism from organized labor, Democrats in Congress and some Republicans.

The Senate voted last year to stop the administration from issuing the regulation, but that provision was later dropped under White House pressure. Even so, Democrats signaled a fresh attempt this year — in the run-up to the November elections — at a time when jobs and pocketbook issues are a key issue in the campaign for the White House.

Republican officials said that under the revisions, up to 107,000 workers could lose their overtime protection, but 6.7 million workers would be guaranteed overtime.

By contrast, under Chao's initial proposal, the Labor Department (search) said 644,000 white-collar workers could have lost protection, and 1.3 million gained it.

Democrats challenged her initial estimates of who could potentially lose overtime eligibility, citing their own prediction of up to 8 million.

The proposed regulations do not apply to workers covered by labor contracts, although union officials said they feared their existence would strengthen the hand of companies in future bargaining.

Apart from the controversy surrounding overtime eligibility, the regulations were designed to meet the concerns of employers who argued that the half-century-old rules failed to address the modern workplace and opened the door to a welter of lawsuits on behalf of workers.

One of the principal goals of the new regulations is to remove much or all of the uncertainty, thereby freeing businesses from the threat of legal action.

A spokesman said Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, chairman of the House Education and Workforce Committee, would invite Chao to testify on the issue next week.

Even before the regulation was released, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., criticized it. "No amount of White House rhetoric will stop employers from applying this shameful anti-worker rule just as Republicans planned it — to boost business profits by employees to work longer hours for lower pay, instead of hiring more employees to do the work," he said.

Republican officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the proposed revisions would make it explicit that police, firefighters, emergency medical technicians and other "first responders" would be eligible for overtime. Administration allies had said that was clear from the initial proposal, but critics disputed them.

Licensed practical nurses and registered nurses also would be eligible, these officials said.

The provision relating to white collar workers marked a clearer retreat. Under the initial proposal, white collar workers making $65,000 and above would have been at risk for losing their eligibility. Under the revisions, those making $100,000 would generally retain their eligibility.

Under current regulations, low-wage earners making less than $8,060 must receive overtime pay. Chao proposed raising that to $22,100 last, year. The revised regulation will place it at $23,660, officials said.