Late last week, President Obama issued an executive order expanding current overtime protections for U.S. workers. The move is critical for many in the U.S. who work more than 40 hours a week in sectors that pay little, but are nevertheless currently “exempt” from overtime pay.
Given how current overtime regulations disproportionately affect women’s earnings, this executive order — and other recent wage policies — is one of the most feminist positions Obama has taken. The administration has also made it a priority to raise the minimum wage and enforce existing labor laws. Women earn significantly less than men across the board, and they are also working in fields in which labor laws tend to be violated more frequently. Thus the Obama administration’s focus on improving labor protections is of deep significance with respect to both recognizing these gender disparities and undertaking efforts to transform them.
Currently, many workers in executive, administrative, or professional jobs fall within the “white collar exemption” and are thus denied overtime— even if they fill positions that pay very little. The Obama administration’s new regulations will narrow the categories of employees that can fall within this exemption.
Perhaps of greater significance, Obama’s proposed regulations specifically raise the salary threshold. Currently workers who earn more than $23,660 a year can be exempt from overtime. This threshold is nearly forty years old and does not afford rent in most parts of the country. The Economic Policy Institute (EPI) pointed out that some ten million workers will benefit from these new regulations: “These workers include insurance clerks, secretaries, low-level managers, social workers, bookkeepers, dispatchers, sales and marketing assistants, and employees in scores of other occupations,” the report notes. That threshold is also where it would be if it had been adjusted for inflation since the last significant increase.”
The way the economy has unfolded has kept many, many women in jobs that are exempt from overtime. Recent research about the biggest overtime regulators being women dominated fields hammers home why this overtime move is so critical for women: child care, restaurant work, and nursing home work are among the sectors that will be affected by the new overtime rules — all fields dominated by women.
Indeed, while the administration has publicized these particular new overtime rules, Obama has already undertaken transformations to overtime regulations, particularly as they impact women-dominated sectors. In September, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) approved regulations extending wage and overtime protections to live-in domestic workers — workers who clean, cook, and care for children, elders, and people with disabilities. These workers had been excluded from overtime protection since the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) was first enacted in the 1930s.
As the New York Times reported in September, these new rules will mean that “[i]f an aide or companion provides ‘care’ that exceeds 20 percent of the total hours she works each week, then the worker is to receive minimum wage and overtime protections.” These rules will take effect in 2015 and will apply to home care workers who are employed by agencies.
Without the Obama administration’s commitment, there would not be federal-level attention to wage issues in sectors dominated by women. The Supreme Court actually ruled to continue limiting overtime pay for domestic workers in 2007. That case was brought by Evelyn Coke, a Jamaican-born domestic worker who spent her career earning $7 per hour, sometimes working three consecutive days, but with no legal right to overtime pay. In a deeply dismissive decision that did not even reference Coke’s work, the Supreme Court determined that excluding her and millions of other domestic workers from overtime pay was perfectly legal.
After the Supreme Court ruling, Obama launched his campaign for the presidency, and he pledged to revise the companionship exemption to overtime. Obama also appointed pro-workers’ rights advocates to lead the Department of Labor. His first appointee, Hilda Solis, is a longtime workers’ rights organizer. His DOL Secretary for the second term, Tom Perez, has a similar commitment to workers’ rights.
The president’s overtime executive order is just the latest example of his commitment to improving women’s economic status. Workers’ rights are women’s rights — a truth the Obama administration seems to be cognizant of.
Sheila is a former employment attorney who now writes about gender and economic justice. Her book about the U.S. domestic workers’ movement will be released by Ig Publishing in 2014.