The New Overtime Rules Will Help Middle-Class Americans

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An employee at a Wal-Mart store in Secaucus, New Jersey, on November 11, 2015. The authors argue that instead of focusing on a sliver of the workforce in “prestige” industries, we should look at the entire universe of workers the new overtime regulations will help. Lucas Jackson/reuters

Will the Labor Department's new overtime rule pose perils for the poor young professionals who, like the heroine in The Devil Wears Prada, endure grueling hours, low pay and general abuse at work in the hope of someday landing an executive job in "prestige" industries, such as publishing or entertainment?

If they can't work 60- to 70-hour weeks, arriving earlier than and staying well after the boss's departure, how can they possibly distinguish themselves and move up the career ladder?

How can they succeed without donating free labor to their firms, putting in endless hours of "face time" or performing two jobs for the price of one?

Cue the violins, for this plaintive story of unintended consequences from The New York Times may finally prove what corporations have claimed all along: Fixing overtime will destroy America's jobs (especially for the young and privileged).

Or will it? Because the much more common story is that of the fast-food or big-box "assistant manager" who's paid as little as $25,000 per year, has few real managerial responsibilities, spends most of her time doing front-line work and regularly puts in 50 or 60 hours a week on the job with no additional pay at all.

Because this "assistant manager" gets a salary, her employer can often take advantage of existing overtime rules with loopholes so large you can drive a Mack Truck through them.

But while we're focused on "stunted" career options for up-and-comers in "prestige" industries, let's set the record straight. Even under the current rules, these workers likely should be receiving overtime pay. Because it's highly doubtful that their employers would give entry-level staffers the high level of responsibility, discretion, control and independence that the law requires to justify exempting them from overtime pay, no matter what their salary is.

So instead of focusing on a sliver of the workforce in these "prestige" industries, let's look instead at the entire universe of workers the new overtime regulations will help.

The Economic Policy Institute has crunched the numbers, and they're very telling. They include 4.2 million parents who will either get more money or more time with their children; 1.5 million African-Americans, and 2.0 million Hispanics; 3.2 million workers with high school degrees but no college education; and 4.5 million millennials.

The vast majority of these workers aren't trying to climb the corporate ladders of Hollywood or Madison Avenue, but are simply hoping to maintain a toehold on the middle class and enjoy a modicum of work-life balance.

As a nation, we long ago abandoned the notion that excessive hours without extra pay is a badge of honor for employees or their employers. That we're not talking about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory doesn't mean this abusive business model is one that anyone should embrace.

Often, workers are at their most productive when hours are manageable and predictable, and employers respect and embrace the importance of work-life balance. And if so much work is required just to get everything done, then employers should pay for the overtime or hire more people—that's what the overtime requirements are all about.

Finally, it's well established that workplace stress is extremely detrimental to a worker's health and well-being. Researchers at Stanford and Harvard determined that workplace stress is just as dangerous to one's health as secondhand smoke; some of the key drivers of these harmful effects are long hours, work-life conflict (which is exacerbated, if not caused by, excessive work hours) and unreasonably high job demands.

The new overtime regulations, which take effect on December 1, 2016, are a huge victory for middle-class workers, approximately 12.5 million of whom will start making more money or have more free time for themselves and their families.

Spinning the rules as an obstacle to career growth for young workers is an entertaining yarn, but upon closer examination it's revealed for just what it is: one more flimsy argument for blocking pay increases for America's workers. Let the unraveling begin.

Christine Owens is the executive director and Judy Conti is the federal advocacy coordinator at the National Employment Law Project.