Obama Wants More Workers to Get Overtime Pay

Request to Labor Department part of overall policy agenda, campaign platform
March 13, 2014 Updated: March 12, 2014

President Obama told the Labor Department Thursday to set new rules on who must be paid overtime for working over 40 hours per week. He wants overtime for more kinds of workers and he wants to raise the minimum salary that determines who must be paid overtime.

It’s one of many policy ideas intended to set a traditionally Democratic, pro-labor, pro-working and middle-class platform ahead of the crucial 2014 midterm elections.

Those elections are crucial because the president would stand almost no chance of accomplishing any domestic legislative victories during the rest of his term if Democrats lose their majority in the Senate.

Immigration reform, developing alternative energy, creating individual retirement accounts, expanding pre-K education and job training, widening leave policies, and raising the minimum wage are Obama’s stated priorities. His motto for them is “a year of action to help ensure opportunity for all Americans.”

Campaign Platform

He laid out his wishes in the Jan. 28 State of the Union address and in his proposed budget. Critics described both of them as a campaign platform rather than a realistic agenda.

The president also announced during the State of the Union that he would use executive actions as much as possible. A nearly paralyzed Congress has disagreed on everything from gun laws to health care to budgets to defense spending.

Through executive orders, Obama may be able to make changes that will be popular with potential Democratic voters, and help candidates win or hang on to seats during the midterms, which will be Nov. 4.

Conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh said in February he thinks 2014 will bring a resounding defeat to Democrats. “I think the people of this country are going to sweep Democrats out of office every chance they get, every opportunity they get.”

Motivate the Base

Former White House senior adviser David Axelrod said Wednesday on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” that the real challenge is to motivate the Democratic base of young people and minorities to vote in November. “We didn’t do it in 2010. If we don’t do it in 2014, it’s going to be a very difficult year,” he said.

Axelrod said the Republican base in Florida’s Tuesday special election was motivated by their opposition to the Affordable Care Act. Democrats can’t back away from the ACA, according to Axelrod, but they must find a way to excite their likely voters.

In the Florida election, Republican David Jolly won a congressional seat in the 13th District. It was vacant because the incumbent, Rep. Bill Young, died in 2013. Republicans held the seat for 40 years, but voters there elected Obama in 2008 and 2012, so it was considered a swing district.

The traditional Democratic base is young people, minorities, lower income workers, and immigrants. There is also a gender gap as female voters are less likely to vote for Republican candidates. All of those people might be affected by a raised minimum wage, expanded overtime provisions, new anti-discrimination rules, and expanded leave provisions, all part of Obama’s wish list.

Fair Labor Standards

The details of Obama’s Wednesday request to change the terms of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 will mean that the Labor Department could raise the pay threshold for workers covered by overtime rules.

According to the White House, it’s a change the president can make without going through Congress. The new rules would take effect after a period of public comment, and like all proposed federal rules, could be changed if there is serious opposition.

Raising the federal minimum wage would require legislative action. Obama’s executive order to raise it to $10.10 per hour for federal contractors will affect few people.

Expanding overtime will have a wider effect. Currently, salaried workers who make more than $455 per week are exempt from overtime. California and New York have set higher thresholds of $640 and $600 a week respectively, a White House official said.

Business groups are likely to oppose both initiatives. They would mean a pay boost for millions of people, and higher costs for employers.

A shrinking middle class and a widening gap between the highest-income Americans and everyone else is a big part of Obama’s policy agenda. He said he wants to strengthen the middle class. He also wants to give the Democratic base something to vote for.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.