President pushes to expand overtime pay for American workers

Larger, profitable employers should be well placed to absorb any additional costs, say experts

President Barack Obama has opened the door to millions more American workers being eligible for extra pay by ordering a shake-up of federal rules governing overtime.

“Americans have spent too long working more and getting less in return,” the president said in remarks last week accompanying his latest executive action – a move intended to bypass Congress in efforts to push through the changes.

To discuss the implications of the rule change on America’s workforce, Bryce Covert, the economic policy editor at ThinkProgress, and Robert Ottinger, a New York based employment lawyer, sat down with Al Jazeera America’s Jonathan Betz.

Ottinger said protections for workers have been watered down significantly since the time of the Fair Labor Standards Act, the 1938 legislation that still serves as the country’s touchstone for employment law.

“(Currently), about 90 percent of Americans fall into the ‘white collar exemption’ and that doesn’t make any sense because 90 percent of Americans aren’t white collar workers,” Ottinger said.

Obama’s overtime changes may help end America’s culture of overworking, Covert said.

“One of the other things it does beside give American workers potentially some more money in their pockets after they put in a really long day is change the way we think of the work day,” she said. “Back when the Fair Labor Standards Act was passed, it was to try and make the 40 hour workweek standard.”

Several Republicans, including House Speaker John Boehner, have called Obama’s changes to overtime bad for business, and some groups claim that small firms in particular will bear the brunt of the harm.

But others have countered that large, profitable employers are well placed to absorb the extra cost.

Covert said: “A lot of the companies that are going to be effected by this are large corporations that are making record profits right now — that have completely recovered from the recession.”

Most lawsuits are filed against large corporations because small businesses have a better relationship with their employees, Ottinger added.

“Most smaller companies treat their employees better and they have a closer work environment, they know the people better and they don’t want to rip them off,” he said. “I see the worst examples are the large enterprises — it’s more impersonal and they just have these large-scale schemes to rip off their workers.”

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