Obama’s Overtime Edict: Anything But a Free Lunch

As the New York Times reported yesterday, President Obama intends to barge unilaterally into a hotly contested area of employment law by ordering the Department of Labor to develop regulations “to require overtime pay for several million additional fast-food managers, loan officers, computer technicians and others whom many businesses currently classify as ‘executive or professional’ employees.” As with the expansion by decree of minimum wage law, it will be interpreted in some quarters as an undiluted boon to the employees it covers – their employers will either raise their pay or limit the hours they are expected to work, or both, and how could they be anything but happy about that? But as the piece quotes Cato’s Dan Mitchell as warning, There’s no such thing as a free lunch… If they push through something to make a certain class of workers more expensive, something will happen to adjust.”

At Forbes, Daniel Fisher explains some of the mechanisms by which that will happen. It will probably become harder to retain exempt status, for example, for “management-plus” jobs, such as one where a shift manager is expected to fill in occasionally at the register during a cashier’s break. That will hit smaller establishments especially hard, while yanking away transitional positions by which ambitious hourly hires can cross over to management. Moreover: 

…non-exempt employees will be watched more closely to avoid tripping the sort of litigation threat that increasing numbers of labor lawyers are looking out for. Working at home could become taboo, since the employer has more difficulty monitoring hours and working conditions. Employees who harbor the perhaps foolish idea that by working hard and taking on greater responsibilities they can move up in the organization will instead be told to go home and relax.

Already, wage-and-hour lawsuits are a thriving hub of litigation, since the law sets up a retrospective guessing game as to whether or not exemption will be upheld: “Enterprising plaintiff attorneys have made hundreds of millions of dollars pursuing lawsuits on behalf of stockbrokers, mortgage loan officers and other white-collar professionals not normally associated with punch-the-clock, shop-floor labor.” 

For years, some lawyers have been advising clients not to hand out company-paid cellphones to any workers who lack a lawful overtime exemption, lest a claim later be made that work was done on the phones during evenings and weekends. Where the law is particularly stringent about calculation of lunch breaks, as in California, some lawyers have advised employers to make it a firing offense to do any work during the allotted break.

Obama’s edict is anything but a done deal: it will first enter the slow and contentious Department of Labor regulatory process, and if the Senate turns Republican with this November’s election, the chances of stopping it in Congress will improve. Should it go into effect, however, it will sow widespread disruption in the business sector, deepen suspicion and polarization at the workplace, and frustrate ambitious individuals who willingly tackle long hours to rise into management ranks. Increasingly, Obama’s binge of executive orders and unilateral decrees to bypass Congress is coming to resemble a toddler’s destructive tantrum.