Overtime Plan Draws Angry Letters By Kirstin DowneyWashington Post Staff WriterTuesday, July 29, 2003; Page E01 The letters and e-mails from nurses and prison guards, from stay-at-home moms and corporate executives, fill dozens of bound white plastic folders on shelves in a Labor Department reading room, part of more than 80,000 comments on the Bush administration's effort to change the rules that govern payment for overtime work.Many are form letters generated by business or labor groups. Many are personal stories from individuals who heard about the proposal and fear losing extra pay they have built into their budgets, even if it's not clear that they will be affected by the changes. A recent review of 23,000 comments, the first batch made available, found that the mail is running heavily against the rule change designed to update a 65-year-old law."Shame on you, President Bush," Patrick L. Crane, 47, a prison guard from Highland, Ill., wrote to the department in early June. ". . . I would not appreciate being mandated to work extra hours in a prison and become injured or killed for working exhausted."Crane said he has used his time-and-a-half pay to replace his car's broken transmission; help care for his mother, who has dementia; and pay medical bills for his brain cancer treatments."What they are proposing is downright absurd, extremely unfair and un-American," wrote Jennifer Igo, a nurse at the Joe DiMaggio Children's Hospital Intensive Care Unit in Hollywood, Fla., in a letter that was co-signed by 48 co-workers there. "Nurses are already overworked," she wrote."Please do not take away our overtime pay," wrote Megan Musser, 22, of Severn, Md., who said her husband, David, worked 30 hours of overtime a week so that Megan could be a stay-at-home mother to their daughter, Bailey, for the first 21/2 years of her life instead of working nights as a waitress. In her letter, she called the Labor Department plan "deplorable."The passion of the letters is an indication of why the overtime regulation has become a hot political issue. House Democrats tried to block the proposed regulations earlier this month but were defeated, 213 to 210, after heavy lobbying. Senate Democrats are seeking to add a similar blocking amendment to legislation this week. If it fails, the Bush administration will be able to proceed with the change; if it passes, the bill that it is attached to will go to conference with the House.Republican and Democratic administrations alike have attempted to update the overtime provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 over the past 25 years but have been worn down by the complexities of the rules and the politics.The law established the expectation of a 40-hour workweek by guaranteeing the right to overtime pay, at time and a half, for each hour worked beyond 40. Though about 80 percent of the workforce is theoretically entitled to overtime pay, far fewer workers -- about 11.6 million last year -- actually receive it.Under the Bush proposal, managers making up to $22,100 would be guaranteed overtime pay, but many salaried workers making more than $65,000 a year would be exempt. Now exempt from overtime pay are workers who fall into special managerial, administrative or professional categories, whose higher level of career involvement assumes they work longer hours under more flexible conditions. The proposed changes, in essence, would reclassify more mid-level workers as "learned professionals," or administrative or executive workers, making them exempt.Some business groups suggest the $65,000 pay cap is too high. The International Foodservice Distributors Association wrote that $50,000 a year "would be much more reasonable." The National Restaurant Association said that $45,000 a year "would be more appropriate."Deborah Greenfield, the AFL-CIO's associate general counsel, said: "People are outraged and they are scared. . . . This is a bread-and-butter issue for our members." About 200,000 union members have sent letters to the White House protesting the proposed change, union officials said.Victoria A. Lipnic, assistant labor secretary for employment standards, said department officials were not taken aback by the heavy volume of comments, in part because Internet filing makes it easier for people to air their opinions. "It's not surprising when you propose a change to something that has been in place for 54 years," Lipnic said. "You can expect some vigorous debate about it. Overtime is important to people, and we know that. . . . We really welcome the suggestions."The Labor Department will review all the comments and take them into account in implementing the final regulations, which Lipnic said could happen within a year. She said the department is trying to develop rules that will "cause the least economic disruption possible."A sign of the complexity of the issue is the wide range of numbers the department and interest groups have tossed around in estimating how many workers would lose extra pay if the changes tale effect. The Labor Department says 644,000 workers. The business-backed Employment Policy Foundation came up with 1.16 million workers. A labor-funded think tank, the Economic Policy Institute, said 8 million.In the reams of comment letters, many workers expressed strong feelings, volunteering details about how they use overtime earnings to pay their bills and to provide extras for their children."The 40-hour week was enshrined in American labor law during the Great Depression," wrote Ron A. Nerad, a computer systems integrator in St. Louis. "It's still a good idea. Workers who labor longer deserve premium pay. Why? Because it creates an incentive for the employer to treat the employee's time with respect!"Lawrence Busch, a pharmacist from Tehachapi, Calif., wrote asking for the names and phone and fax numbers of every government official involved in the decision to cut overtime. "If you think there is a [pharmacist] shortage now, wait until you tell a pharmacist who is making loan payments on a $120,000 education that he or she cannot make time and a half after eight hours in one of the most stressful professions on earth," Busch wrote.Business groups, on the other hand, applauded the department's work and asked for more exemptions.The Illinois Credit Union League asked for language making it clear that loan officers, executive assistants, compliance specialists, credit managers and bookkeepers hold a "position of responsibility" and should be exempt from overtime requirements.The National Funeral Directors Association asked that funeral directors and embalmers be specified as ineligible for overtime to avoid "confusion and litigation" over their employment status.The National Association of Broadcasters, which represents owners of television and radio stations, wants the rule to make it more explicit that television and radio reporters, producers, directors, news camerapersons, and "other relevant jobs" are ineligible for overtime.Their views are echoed by the Newspaper Association of America, which would like language specifying that reporters, editors and photographers are exempt from overtime. It also suggests that development, payroll, environmental services, security, loss-prevention, information technology, legal, computer services and customer service workers should also be considered for exclusion.ACA International, which represents more than 5,000 debt-collection companies, said debt-collection employees should be exempt from overtime pay because they occupy a "specialized and important position of trust."Dart Transit Co., based in Egan, Minn., said it is becoming so difficult to manage its trucker drivers, whom it employs as independent contractors, resulting in high turnover, that its dispatchers are becoming "key personnel," and urged the Labor Department to make them exempt from overtime.Letters revealed that workers and bosses at the same company are on opposite sides of the issue. Boeing employee Joel Funfarm of Enumclaw, Wash., said he was worried that a rule change would result in the company "simply overworking the few they have left." Another employee, Cynthia Cole, an engineer at Boeing for 25 years, wrote that the overhaul "is not doing justice to the name of the act: FAIR labor standards."Boeing, which has laid off thousands of workers in the past few years, wrote commending the department for updating rules that "have long been out of date." It then asked that team leaders, logistics specialists, manufacturing-technology analysts and some administrative workers be made exempt from overtime pay. Join The One Big Union For All Workers!http://www.iww.org