WASHINGTON ― One of the biggest questions hanging over the confirmation hearing of Alexander Acosta on Wednesday was where President Donald Trump’s pick to lead the Labor Department stands on the issue of overtime pay.
Acosta gave some surprisingly revealing answers to that question ― and they don’t bode well for the monumental overtime reforms made by former President Barack Obama, which are now tied up in court.
Before he left office, Obama tried to change overtime law so that millions more salaried workers would be eligible for time-and-a-half pay when they work more than 40 hours in a week. His administration sought to do that by raising what’s known as the overtime salary threshold ― the level below which everybody is entitled to overtime pay, regardless of their job duties.
The current salary level, set by the George W. Bush administration, is just $23,660 per year, meaning you probably aren’t entitled to overtime pay if you make more than that. Obama tried to roughly double the threshold, to $47,476 per year. That would have brought overtime protections to an additional 4.2 million workers, according to White House estimates.
When Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) asked Acosta about the rule, the former National Labor Relations Board member suggested Obama’s reforms were too aggressive and too costly to employers.
“The overtime rule hasn’t been updated since 2004,” Acosta said, referencing the Bush changes. “We now see an update [Obama’s] that is a very large revision. Something that needs to be considered is the impact it has on the economy.” He added that he was concerned about the “stress” Obama’s reform could place on nonprofits and employers in low-wage areas.
Acosta did say he was “sensitive” to the fact that the overtime reforms hadn’t been updated in so long, suggesting he was open to a more modest change that would give at least some workers new protections. But he did not venture anywhere near the reforms laid out by Obama.
Pressed by Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) for a particular salary threshold, Acosta suggested the possibility of adjusting the 2004 level for inflation.
“If you were to apply a straight inflation adjustment, I believe the figure if it were updated would be somewhere around $33,000,” he said.
If the Trump administration were to do that, millions fewer workers would get overtime protections than they would have under Obama’s reforms.
A federal judge issued a temporary injunction against the Obama rules shortly before they went into effect. What happens now is largely in the hands of the current administration. They could go to bat for Obama’s rules in court; they could refuse to defend them and hope they die there; or they could rewrite them so that they’re more friendly to employers and less generous to workers.
Judging from Acosta’s answers, the third possibility looks awfully likely.
Acosta, who served as the head of the Justice Department’s civil rights division under Bush, is expected to be confirmed as labor secretary. Trump’s original nominee for the post, fast-food CEO Andy Puzder, withdrew his nomination last month amid of a swirl of controversies.