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Lobbyists Line Up on Overtime Pay

Business, Labor Groups Both Vow to Keep Up Pressure

By Jeffrey H. Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 12, 2004; Page A12

Intensive lobbying in the fight to stop the Bush administration's eligibility rules for overtime pay will continue unabated, despite doubt on both sides that legislation on the issue can pass this year.

On Thursday, the House handed Democrats and other opponents of the new rules a major victory when it voted 223 to 193 to block the Labor Department from enforcing the regulations which took effect Aug. 23. Lobbying efforts now turn to the Senate, where the appropriations committee will consider a similar measure.

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Overtime Eligibility Losses Debated (The Washington Post, Jul 15, 2004)
Senate Rebuffs Bush, Blocks New Rules on Overtime Pay (The Washington Post, May 5, 2004)

Both business and labor lobbyists plan to keep up the pressure. "We will lobby because of the likelihood of additional votes," said Lee Culpepper, the top lobbyist for the National Restaurant Association, a leader among business groups that favor the new regulations, and therefore oppose the legislation.

"We too will continue to try to educate members of Congress," said Steven J. Pfister of the National Retail Federation, which also supports the new regulations.

The administration's proposal would increase the maximum salary below which employees are automatically eligible for overtime pay, but it would also impose potential restrictions on overtime eligibility for administrative and management-level workers making wages above that threshold.

The retailers' organization is among several major business groups that plan to include votes cast on the issue in their rating system that determines which lawmakers will get financial assistance from their political action committee.

Likewise, those that oppose the regulations, such as organized labor, will send their representatives to Capitol Hill to talk about the legislation. "In the Senate, we're focusing on the Appropriations Committee," said Bill Samuel, the legislative director for the AFL-CIO. As an adjunct to such lobbying, the labor federation has also launched a Web site designed to provide information to workers who are worried about the new rules and to help them get in touch with their members of Congress and urge them to block the regulations.

Despite all this activity, however, neither business nor labor lobbyists are confident that the issue will be resolved this year. With less than two months before Election Day, and relatively few legislative days remaining in the current session of Congress, many obstacles stand in the way of any measure that would upend the rules. The largest of these roadblocks, both sides agree, is the threat by President Bush to veto the legislation.

Another barrier is the probability that most unfinished business this year will be wrapped into one so-called continuing resolution that will not have anything in it that isn't essential to the continued operation of government. Controversial items like the overtime pay provision are often jettisoned in such a bill.

"I suspect very strongly that this provision [blocking the regulations] will not survive the process," said R. Bruce Josten, executive vice president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which supports the new rules.

The AFL-CIO's Samuel would not predict an outcome. "The outlook for the bill is unclear," he said.

Under the new regulations, workers who earn less than $23,660 a year automatically become eligible for overtime pay, compared with the current threshold of $8,060, which was set decades ago. The Bush administration argues this provision would make millions of additional people eligible for overtime pay.

But critics say this gain is more than offset by other provisions in the rules. Workers making more than $23,660 a year can be exempted from overtime pay if they are designated as administrative and white-collar employees. The critics contend that millions of people will actually lose overtime benefits as a result.

Critics of the new regulations assert that all sorts of workers, such as computer technicians, journalists, teachers and funeral home employees, could lose the right to earn overtime compensation largely because they can be said to perform management roles.

The issue has been complicated by the impending election. On Thursday, for example, 22 pro-labor Republicans voted with House Democrats for the legislation to stop the rules. "This was a politically significant but perhaps substantively irrelevant vote," said Jade West, senior vice president of the National Association of Wholesaler Distributors, which supports the new regulations. Legislation blocking the rules is "a long way from enactment."


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