05/26/2016

Many AFT members will benefit from overtime changes

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The new overtime rule announced May 18 by the Obama administration will increase pay for millions of  poorly paid, hardworking people, including thousands of AFT members who are workers at schools and colleges (including postdoctoral researchers), nurses and other public employees. It makes overtime pay mandatory for anyone paid less than $47,476 a year, nearly double the old threshold of $23,660, and affects 35 percent of salaried workers in the United States.

Among them are custodial and food service workers on college campuses and in preK-12 schools, campus maintenance personnel, IT professionals and lab technicians. Some colleges are pushing back, saying they can't afford to pay. But advocates like the AFT point out that everyone should be paid for their time, whether they work in retail or restaurants, where the new rule is expected to make the biggest impact, or on a college campus.

"I don't understand why people think if you work at a college you make so much money," says Peggy Jones, chair of the Cook County College Teachers Union chapter at Prairie State College in Illinois. Some maintenance workers there earn just $28,500. Urged to accept flextime in exchange for working extra hours to cover things like weekend graduations, they instead bargained for overtime pay—before the new rule came through the Department of Labor. Jones says it's shameful that the union had to fight so hard for a "commonsense" policy of fair pay, and for some of the lowest paid workers. With the new rule in place, negotiations should be easier.

Lucye Millerand and colleaguesLucye Millerand, president of the Union of Rutgers Administrators, hopes the rule will ease the ongoing battle at Rutgers University, where the school frequently refuses to pay overtime despite a contract that demands it. URA members have had to file grievances just to get their already-earned wages, says Millerand; so far, they've won a total of $225,000 in back pay. (She is shown above, at right.)

"In the end, it wasn't about the money," says URA Secretary Theresa O'Neill, a career management specialist who was owed nearly 200 hours of overtime. "They were saying 'your work doesn't matter.'"

Millerand says part of the problem is a disconnect between white-collar work and overtime pay. "Facilities understands that if there's a big snowstorm and people need to work a 60-hour week, there is a cost to that," she says. Not so when it comes to office or lab work.

"One of our fights has been to make sure that people have access to the knowledge of whether they're overtime-exempt, or nonexempt."

Also important is the boost the new rule will give low-income students, many of whom attend the colleges where AFT faculty and staff work. "Like millions of middle-class American families, my students are working hard but still feeling the pressure of an increased price tag on the basics of economic security," says Jim Jacobs, president of Macomb Community College in Warren, Mich. "Students at Macomb are juggling long hours on the job with longer hours studying. Working students and their families deserve what's theirs—fair pay for all their hard work."

The new rule will take effect Dec. 1, 2016. Then, workers who make less than $47,476 but were previously exempt from overtime pay (because they made more than the old threshold, $23,660) will see a pay increase as they are compensated for the first time for the overtime hours they work.

Some employers, however, say they'll cut staff hours to avoid paying them for their extra time, or threaten to lower wages to make up for whatever overtime they are now required to pay.

Unfair exclusion
Also problematic is the rule's continued exclusion of certain jobs from qualifying for overtime in the first place. Although AFT leaders and other union representatives, in both written comments and meetings with federal officials, have made it clear to the Department of Labor that the teaching exemption written into the overtime law clearly shortchanges adjunct faculty, who are underpaid and overworked, they are still exempt from overtime. All other teachers and instructional staff are also left out. And while many college staffers, such as IT professionals and maintenance workers, are newly eligible for overtime, those whose work is unique to higher education—such as registrars and academic counselors—are not, unless their individual or union contracts demand it.

Some colleges are arguing against including postdoctoral researchers in the new rule, though they are currently included. But when executives and coaches are literally paid millions, paying postdocs overtime is a matter of justice, says Economic Policy Institute Vice President Ross Eisenbrey. "The priorities of our top universities, which routinely pay more than a million dollars to a football coach while starving the best-educated scientists in the world, are clearly wrong. They should be ashamed to be fighting a rule that will provide modest compensation for their employees' long hours."

"Corporate CEOs and university presidents are grousing not just because they will have to pay for the labor they employ, but because they have been justifying their own excessive pay packages by claiming that improvements to 'productivity' are due to their special skills and expertise," says Stephen Rechner, president of the Union of Clerical, Administrative and Technical Staff at New York University. "Now, it will be apparent that it has been nothing more than exploitation."

Rechner applauds the new overtime rule. “Remember, this isn't a situation where workers have just been getting paid straight time—they haven't been getting paid at all, but now, many of them will.”

EPI, the AFT and others will continue to fight for fair pay on campus. Meanwhile, AFT leaders support the strides that already have been made.

"For years, AFT members have fought and organized with their communities to ensure people are paid a fair wage for hours worked," says AFT President Randi Weingarten. "This new rule will deliver justice to millions of working families who devote a huge part of their lives to their professions."

[Virginia Myers]