Other than a dismissive sound bite from Labor Secretary Tom Perez, who said he is "working overtime" on new overtime rules, there hasn't been much news on an initiative President Obama deemed important enough to tout in his State of the Union address.
Earlier, the administration said new rules making more workers eligible for overtime would be announced by February. Then officials said they would be ready in March, and then in the first quarter, which ends today. Now Perez is just sound-biting his way out of setting another deadline.
The holdup seems to be a disagreement between the Department of Labor and the White House over how high to set the threshold for eligibility for overtime, which requires workers to be paid time-and-a-half when they work more than 40 hours in a week. The longer policymakers debate, the more likely it becomes that nothing will happen during the Obama administration, especially given that such rule changes undergo a lengthy approval process.
To understand the urgency of changing overtime rules, consider that salaried workers who make more than $23,600 are not eligible for overtime. The poverty level for a family of four is $24,250. Salaried workers haven't seen a significant adjustment to the threshold since 1975, reinforcing disaffected middle- and working-class voters' sense that neither major party cares about them.
Workers who can't earn overtime include 60-hour-a-week managers of fast food restaurants who grill burgers, ring up sales, and take out trash. They also include legions of office workers who stay late and remain constantly available through cellphones and e-mail. They are the backbone of the middle class, and it is snapping.
They were offered some hope when the president talked about the "middle-class economy" and referred specifically to overtime abuses. "Of course, nothing helps families make ends meet like higher wages," he said. "We still need to make sure employees get the overtime they've earned."
Beyond the absurd salary threshold, too many people are misclassified as salaried workers. Companies give them titles like "assistant manager" so they can get around paying overtime.
The problem affects more than struggling workers. The Federal Reserve is warning that the economy isn't doing as well as it could because even though employment is growing, salaries aren't.
Classifying jobs correctly, setting a reasonable overtime threshold, and indexing it to inflation are steps the government can and should take to give workers a raise. Obama should break the bureaucratic stalemate and give a hand up to hardworking people.