WASHINGTON -- Republicans on Tuesday embraced election-year revisions to the nation's overtime pay rules, saying changes to an earlier Bush administration plan will take away extra pay from far fewer white-collar workers.
But Democrats questioned those claims, pointing to a lengthy list of jobs that the regulations, released Tuesday, say are generally ineligible for overtime. The administration, said Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, "simply is not trustworthy on the issue."
Those generally exempt from overtime include a broad range of professionals: pharmacists, funeral directors, embalmers, journalists, financial services industry workers, insurance claims adjusters and human resource managers. Others are management consultants, executive and administrative assistants, dental hygienists, physician assistants and chefs.
Even athletic trainers with degrees or specialized training, computer system analysts, programmers and software engineers are generally exempt.
"The devil is in the details, and we just got the details," said Harkin, who led Senate opposition to the earlier version of the proposed regulations.
But Labor Secretary Elaine Chao said "few, if any" workers would lose their overtime pay protections. Officials said legal challenges and case law show that those jobs aren't eligible for overtime pay anyway.
Chao said that while about 107,000 white-collar workers earning $100,000 or more a year could lose their eligibility, that's fewer than in a draft proposal issued 13 months ago. Also, about 1.3 million lower-wage, white-collar workers will be newly eligible for overtime, she said.
"Workers will clearly know their rights and employers will clearly know their responsibilities," she said. The revisions, which do not need congressional approval, will take effect in 120 days.
Lower-wage workers gaining overtime protections include lower-wage retail and restaurant managers. Middle-income workers such as office workers, cooks, inspectors, paralegals, licensed practical nurses and technicians "will have their rights better protected," the department said.
Police officers, firefighters and emergency medical technicians are identified as jobs that will not lose overtime protections in response to criticism from Democrats and labor unions, who said the initial plan was vague and could cut overtime pay for those "first responders."
The revisions come at a time when jobs and pocketbook issues are among voters' chief concerns. President Bush has improved his standing in polls on domestic issues, but questions linger about the strength of the labor market and his plan to create jobs.
When the overtime plan was issued in March 2003, the administration drew ferocious criticism from organized labor, Democrats and some Republicans over concern that millions of workers would lose overtime pay.
It marked the first comprehensive revision of the 1938 Fair Labor Standard Act regulations on white-collar rules in five decades. The guidelines were drawn up at the urging of businesses and employer groups battling mounting lawsuits from workers challenging their status.
"Employers have spent too many years trying to shoehorn modern jobs into regulations that haven't been updated since Elvis was a teenager. We've finally got regulations that will mean something in the 21st century workplace," said Katherine Lugar, the National Retail Federation's vice president for legislative and political affairs.
The regulations could save employers $250 million to $500 million annually in penalties or damages from those suits, department officials said. One-time costs to put the rules in place are estimated at about $70 million.
Department officials said last year's initial proposal would have cut overtime for 644,000 workers, though the draft itself said 1.5 million to 2.7 million workers "will be more readily identified as exempt." Labor unions and Democrats said the figure was closer to 8 million.
Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who is married to Chao, said Democrats should be pleased that most of their concerns were addressed in the final plan. Chao briefed Senate Republicans on Tuesday.
"I would hope Senator Harkin would be pleased that the regulation that was issued incorporated many of his concerns," McConnell said. "Maybe he'll change his position."
Harkin and Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., said they would continue to try to block portions of the regulation that could take away overtime pay from workers. Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., urged them on.
Miller said he and other Democrats intend to spend "the next couple of days determining whether or not the administration is telling the truth. But I must tell you, it's very hard to believe they are."
Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry said in a statement that the changes "strike a severe blow to what little economic security working families have left as a result of Bush's failed policies."
The regulations will not apply to workers covered by labor contracts. Still, union officials said they feared the changes would strengthen the hand of companies in future bargaining.
"The fact that President Bush is slashing overtime pay for even a single worker is outrageous," AFL-CIO spokeswoman Lane Windham said.
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