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House Transportation Bill: Lobbying And Lawsuits Behind Move To Strip Worker Protections

John Mica

First Posted: 02/17/2012 1:05 pm Updated: 02/20/2012 4:11 pm

WASHINGTON -- House Republicans are trying to pass a transportation bill that would strip certain workers of their minimum-wage and overtime protections. As it turns out, several of the companies that would benefit from the change have recently been sued by their employees for allegedly violating wage laws.

One of those companies, Evansville, Ind.-based Professional Transportation, Inc. (PTI), has lobbied lawmakers to have its workers exempted from the Fair Labor Standards Act, the 1938 federal law that guarantees basic labor rights. Ronald Romain, the president of PTI's parent company, and his wife, Connie Romain, donated more than $55,000 to GOP election efforts last year, including a combined $10,000 to Evansville-based Rep. Larry Bucshon (R-Ind.), according to campaign contribution records from the Center for Responsive Politics.

Bucshon sits on both the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, which produced the transportation bill, and the House Education and the Workforce Committee, which oversees workplace laws and protections. Bucshon is running for re-election this year.

Bucshon's office did not return requests for comment made this week. Neither did Ronald Romain, nor a lobbyist with Steptoe & Johnson, the lobbying firm hired by PTI.

The change inserted into the House bill, listed under the heading "Technical Correction," would remove wage protections for several thousand "long-haul drivers" who transport railroad crews from worksite to worksite. Many of those drivers work for roughly the minimum wage and sometimes log 60 hours a week, often driving several hundred miles at a time across state lines. The drivers are currently entitled to overtime pay but would lose it under the House bill.

Some of the firms that could benefit from the GOP provision other than PTI include RailCrew Xpress, Renzenberger and Coach America, all of which have faced employee lawsuits over alleged wage violations.

Joseph Cassell, a Wichita, Kan.-based lawyer, has successfully sued PTI and other rail transport companies for violating wage laws. He says exempting the workers from minimum-wage and overtime protections would take money out of an already meager paycheck. Drivers are compensated on a per-mile basis and the pay sometimes doesn’t even work out to minimum wage, according to Cassell.

"These drivers work their butts off," Cassell says. "All you have to have is a clean driving record and pass a drug test. In some cases, they're not even high school graduates. They need work and unfortunately they're willing to work under tough conditions and long hours ... If anybody gets overtime, it should be these people."

"Look, these companies are making money, even if they have to pay overtime," Cassell adds. "They are not hurting."

Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) has filed an amendment to the House bill that would maintain wage protections for the drivers. "It's outrageous that House Republicans are trying to take away overtime protections for a class of workers at the behest of a special interest," Miller said of the provision in an earlier statement to HuffPost. "These workers deserve the right to overtime pay. It's not only a matter of fairness, but also a matter of public safety."

The transportation bill will not come up for a vote until late February, and Republicans are still trying to rally support for it. The $260 billion, five-year bill has generated plenty of controversy, with Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, a former GOP congressman, calling it "the worst transportation bill I've ever seen during 35 years of public service" and "the most partisan transportation bill that I have ever seen."

Many elements of the House transportation bill are unlikely to be accepted by the Senate, where the committee has produced a bill with strong bi-partisan support. President Obama has threatened to veto the House bill if it doesn’t include significant changes.

Among other hotly contested measures, the bill would cut subsidies for Amtrak by 25 percent and slash funding for bicycle and pedestrian projects. In general, the bill calls for more highways and toll roads, to be funded by offshore drilling.

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