WASHINGTON ― The 80-hour work week isn’t going anywhere for now.
The Trump administration on Friday declined to defend landmark overtime reforms put forward by former President Barack Obama last year. In a brief filed in federal court, the White House said it instead wants to take its own stab at tweaking the nation’s overtime rules.
That’s a mixed bag for the nation’s salaried workers.
Obama’s rules would have extended overtime protections to an estimated 4 million additional people, entitling them to time-and-a-half pay when they work more than 40 hours in a week. Any plan that the Trump White House comes up with would be far less sweeping ― but would still cover more workers than the status quo.
Overtime pay has become pretty much a foreign concept to a whole generation of Americans who work on salary. While hourly workers are automatically entitled to extra pay for extra work, the rules for salaried workers are more complicated. The way they’re written now, only an estimated 11 percent get overtime pay, compared with around 65 percent back in 1975.
Obama tried to cover more workers by raising the so-called salary threshold ― the level below which pretty much all salaried workers are guaranteed time and a half for overtime. The current threshold is just $23,660; the Obama proposal would have moved it to $47,476, bringing protections to millions of workers whose salaries fall between those two numbers. It was perhaps the most dramatic economic reform Obama attempted through executive action.
But business groups sued on behalf of employers that don’t want to pay more overtime, winning a stay from a federal judge in Texas. Obama’s reforms have been in limbo since. Supporters of Obama’s plan, like labor unions, could step in to defend it in court, but the Trump administration could still rewrite the rules.
As the Justice Department brief makes clear, the White House wants to keep that option open. Although the White House didn’t defend the details of Obama’s reforms, it did support they way Obama did it, by hiking the salary threshold. So, while the White House may not like the changes Obama made, it essentially concedes that he was within his power to make them.
Echoing other Democrats, Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.) said in a statement that he was glad the Trump administration defended the method behind the overtime expansion, but disappointed it bailed on the expansion itself.
“President Trump has fought in court for his executive order punishing cities that welcome immigrant families, and he has fought in court for his Muslim Ban, twice,” Takano said. “But today he is refusing to fight for the American workers who he repeatedly promised to protect.”
The overtime issue is a tricky one for Trump. He built his campaign around the idea of creating good, high-paying jobs, and yanking potential raises away from a few million workers isn’t a great look. It’s become apparent since he took office that he won’t embrace the breadth of Obama’s reforms, but he’s probably willing to update the overtime rules in some fashion.
His labor secretary, Alexander Acosta, made this clear during his confirmation hearing in March, where the overtime reforms figured prominently.
“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,” Acosta told senators. He said he was concerned about the “stress” Obama’s reform could place on nonprofits and employers in low-wage areas.
When pressed on a possible salary threshold, Acosta got specific. “If you were to apply a straight inflation adjustment” to the current level, Acosta said, “I believe the figure if it were updated would be somewhere around $33,000.”
That would cover far fewer workers than Obama’s threshold of $47,476, but it would still bring overtime protections to some people who don’t have them now.