We may be a nation that can spend over a billion dollars in a single day to feed the Black Friday Beast, but we’re also one in which not every family can afford to eat on the regular. Don’t believe it? Keep an eye out for the holiday food bank drives in your neighborhood. You can’t miss them. (I see you, Publix.) Canned good, toy and winter coat drive organizations are in overdrive right now, trying to serve thousands of parents who are working endless, under-compensated hours to provide for their families.
I spent a lot of time getting familiar with the new overtime pay rules that should have gone into effect on December 1 because they were going to have a huge impact on the creative industries Paste covers and the daily lives of our wide-ranging readership. The first time I heard about the new regulations was when an agency client suddenly felt the need to drastically change the terms of our casual-but-long-hours arrangement… or else break up. It wasn’t pretty. So I started talking with attorneys, accountants, other advertising agencies, design firms and in-house graphic departments about how the regulations were impacting other creatives. According to HOW Design, 46% of designers are engaged in a solo design practice or full-time freelance business that would be protected by the new overtime regulations.
And the new law wouldn’t just effect professional creative industry and freelance-types, but blue-collar workers and burnout-adjacent new college grads as well. No one in my circle could explain better to me how the overtime rules would look in practice than the IBEW electrician in cowboy boots and an Official NRA belt buckle the size of my face. The law was going to touch every industry, stakeholder, executive, worker and maker out there. But despite the far-ranging impact, there seemed to be just two main schools of thought: “It’s going to be bad for business” or “It would really help me out.”
On announcing the new overtime law back in May, President Obama said “This is a step in the right direction to strengthen and secure the middle class by raising Americans’ wages.” Under the current salary cap, only 7% of salaried workers qualify for overtime pay. The cap hasn’t been raised in 12 years and the history of inflation drastically outpacing salary increases goes back for decades. Guaranteed overtime pay is long overdue and can only be a good thing for the real lives of the working middle class. Right?
The plan Obama laid out was simple. Anyone making less than $47,476 each year would be eligible for overtime pay. Hourly employees and salaried employees (including managers) would all be protected equally. Employers who weren’t already paying overtime had three choices under the new law:
1. Allow you to work only 40 hours per week and pay you the same salary or hourly wage
2. Pay you time-and-a-half for all hours worked beyond 40 each week
3. Give you a raise to $47,476 or more so you can continue working more than 40 hours per week without overtime pay
U.S. District Judge Amos L. Mazzano III, an Obama-appointed federal court judge in Texas, blocked the new overtime law on November 22, less than 10 days before it was to take effect. He sided with the 21 states who claimed it could “cause irreparable harm” if it took effect as scheduled. Irreparable harm? To whom? To what?
Businesses were up in arms when the Obama Administration finalized the regulations, which would have made millions of American workers eligible for overtime pay. Could anything be worse than having to send workers home at the end of a 40 hour week? Well, yes. Paying if you want them to stay late and keep working. That’s an increased business expense. And increased expenses mean lower bottom lines. Getting the attorneys and human resources ilk involved with the transition adds to the pricetag. More complicated payroll tracking and training salaried employees on timekeeping just continues to drive those costs of doing business even higher.
When Texas, Oklahoma and 19 other states sued to block the Labor Department from implementing the new rules, the filing said a lot of the states’ rights/anti-federal government stuff you can probably find on your friendly neighborhood Facebook feed:
“By committing an ever-increasing amount of State funds to paying State employee salaries or overtime, the Federal Executive can unilaterally deplete State resources… and could deliberately exhaust State budgets through the enforcement of the overtime rule.”
Read: The State of Texas #dgaf about middle class workers in Texas, except the ones the State of Texas employs and would have to pay overtime to under the new law. These states are protecting their own budgets and bottom lines before protecting the people they are designed and funded to serve. Haven’t we heard this tune before?
The opposition also argued that increasing the income threshold limit would reduce opportunities for advancement. Because… if you’re working more than 40 hours a week and still can’t afford to feed your kid, not to mention pay the $1/minute you’re definitely not making when you’re late to pick him up at the daycare that most of your income goes toward paying for… your number one priority is a title bump even if you have to put in extra uncompensated hours to “earn” it. The issue is always the same: money and who gets it. The math behind the complex legal language “doubling the minimum salary threshold required to qualify for overtime pay exemptions” is simple. When employee compensation is higher, business profit is lower. This is true whether your business is advertising, electricity or running the State of Texas.
How convenient that a judge from Texas would issue the nationwide injunction rejecting an overdue law that signaled a shift toward fairly compensating employees. Judge Mazzant may not understand it, as his ruling suggests, but the intent of President Obama and Congress was clear: to protect the hungry single mom stocking groceries she can’t afford to buy at the end of a twelve-hour day. To protect the young creative designer who isn’t getting as much “cultural career development” from fetching coffee as the (making more than minimum-wage) executives in charge think she is. To protect the recent college grad-slash-waiter who just wants to work his way up to assistant manager “for the insurance and maybe to pay more than $10 a month on my student loans”. To protect the intern… God save the intern.
Corporate greed is not an acceptable reason to reject a simple, worker-friendly regulation that signals an important shift toward fairly compensating middle class employees. Was the business community’s objection so strong because the changes would be harder to circumvent with creative bookkeeping than the laws of ever? (That’s what I’m hearing from the ad agency executives and their lobbyists.) Are we really okay with all these judges in Texas issuing nationwide injunctions to block labor-related Obama initiatives? (This isn’t the first time it’s happened.) Is Judge Mazzant’s true intention to simply delay the decision until Congress changes hands under the incoming administration? (I see you, too, Amos. #jobsecurity)
And speaking of that regime change, just what does Führer Trump think about all of this? He won the 2016 election on the backs of the working-class voters who this law was clearly designed to benefit, yet during his campaign he spoke positively of delaying and/or rolling back overtime regulations. Trump has pledged to the working and middle-class people that he will fight corporate interests. Does he think Making America Great Again includes compensation equality for all?
Emily Ray is Paste’s Visual Arts Editor.