Do Republicans Want to Diminish Overtime Protection in the Fair Labor Standards Act?

The Fair Labor Standards Act or "FLSA" is a federal statute, enacted by congress that protects many workers' rights to fair pay. Under the FLSA, covered employees have minimum wage protections as well as rights to receive overtime compensation for hours worked over 40 in a workweek. The act, originated during the Great Depression, was passed in 1938, and has protected workers' rights to fair pay for over 70 years. Republican lawmakers are now indicating a willingness to reform the FLSA, this evidenced by a Congressional hearing held mid-July.

The hearing was called by Rep. Tim Walberg (R-Mich.), the chair of the House education and workforce committee, in order to discuss the FLSA, relative to today's work force and business environment. Specifically, the purpose was to investigate if the FLSA is "meeting the needs of the 21st century." Two business executives and a lawyer testified and said, "The statute has become too onerous for contemporary employers, leading to an explosion of costly lawsuits brought by workers."

Walberg said, "The law was a significant expansion of the government's authority when it was created in the midst of the Great Depression. Good intentions can often lead to unintended consequences. It is hard to imagine a law intended for the workforce known to Henry Ford can serve the needs of a workplace shaped by the innovations of Bill Gates."

At the time of Henry Ford, the assembly line was a huge innovation in the manufacture of automobiles, just as Bill Gates' Microsoft continues to lead innovation today. So, are workers any less deserving of fair pay for a fair day's work today than they were during the Great Depression? Are workers today less deserving of rightful protection under the law? Are today's workers less deserving of overtime pay for all hours worked over 40 in a work week?

Henry Ford said himself, "Where people work longest and with least leisure, they buy the fewest goods. No towns were so poor as those of England where the people, from children up, worked fifteen and sixteen hours a day. They were poor because these overworked people soon wore out -- they became less and less valuable as workers. Therefore, they earned less and less and could buy less and less." Ford also said, "There is one rule for the industrialist and that is: Make the best quality of goods possible at the lowest cost possible, paying the highest wages possible." Henry Ford wanted to assure that any man working on his assembly line could afford to buy one of his automobiles.

The major topic of Walberg's hearing was with regard to exempt vs. non-exempt employees and how these categories of employment relate to employees' protection under the FLSA. Non-exempt employees are protected by the law's provisions, that provides for federal minimum wage plus overtime pay for any hours worked in excess of 40 in a week. Exempt employees that are predominantly white-collar workers and paid on a salary basis, are not protected by the law and can be worked overtime without being paid for it. The issue involves the definitions for exempt and non-exempt.

Republican witnesses at the hearing used large, million dollar law suit settlements as evidence that employees and their attorneys exploit the FLSA. This is because non-exempt employees that think they have been cheated out of pay can sue an employer.

A senior vice president at IBM, J. Randall McDonald said "Our ability to use technology has dramatically changed the workplace". His opinion is that the FLSA statute needs to be amended so that some workers now covered by the law would no longer be able to rely on its protections.

Again, Henry Ford's assembly line dramatically changed the workplace. Just because a worker slaves over a computer instead of an assembly line, that worker is not less deserving of protection under the law.

Aaron Albright, who was the spokesman for the Democrats, commented that Republicans would like to "roll back" the FLSA so that fewer workers are covered by its provisions. He feels the Republican goal is to diminish the number of workers that are eligible for overtime or the minimum wage. He said, "What's the purpose for the tinkering? It's basically to reclassify workers so they're not eligible for overtime or minimum wage."

Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) asked all the witnesses if the federal minimum wage (7.25) should be raised, lowered or kept the same.

J. Randall McDonald said he did not understand the question and the other two Republicans dodged the question altogether.

Does this exchange tell us anything about the Republican intent toward the Fair Labor Standards Act?

Minimum Wage, Overtime Laws Due For Reform: Republicans, Huffington Post, Dave Jamieson, July 14, 2011