News & Commentary

August 16, 2015

Hannah Belitz

Hannah Belitz is a student at Harvard Law School.

Are white-collar employees eligible for overtime pay if they work more than 40 hours a week? Federal courts have arrived at different answers to this question, which, as the Wall Street Journal suggests, means the Supreme Court might ultimately have to decide the matter. This week, the U.S. District Court in the Eastern District of California ruled in favor of Provident Savings Bank FSB, which claimed that the Fair Labor Standards Act allowed it to exempt mortgage underwriters from the law’s overtime rules. The Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, however, ruled the other way in a similar case against J.P Morgan Chase & Co., holding that mortgage underwriters should be classified as non-exempt employees eligible for overtime pay. It is now considering a similar case that began in Ohio. And the question of overtime pay is not limited to mortgage underwriters: it has arisen in relation to law firms, too. An attorney working on a temporary basis for Skadden Arps Slate Meager & Flom filed a lawsuit in the Second Circuit, claiming that Skadden owes him overtime pay for the hours he spent reviewing documents. In July, the Court of Appeals allowed the lawsuit to proceed.

At Pacific StandardRichard L. Trumka and Craig Becker contend that U.S. labor law must change in order to “keep up” with changes in the workplace and the employment relationship. The big question underlying their argument is this: keep up how? As Trumka and Becker explain, labor law must once again allow workers to organize and collectively bargain with their employers. Trumka and Becker suggest that the U.S. should join the international community in the area of labor law by ratifying all eight of the core International Labor Organization conventions (so far, the U.S. has ratified only two), and by ratifying the central 1948 Convention on Freedom of Association and Protection of Right to Organize. The U.S. also needs to restore the fundamental constitutional liberties previously secured by workers’ collective action that, since the 1970s, have been “increasingly seized” by corporate employers. As Trumka and Becker conclude, the government should “modernize our labor laws to once again foster strong organizations of working people in order to restore balance in the economy and the polity.”

The New York City Council has contributed $500,000 to support day-laborer hiring sites across the city, the New York Times reports. As the Worker’s Justice Project (WJP) explains, this contribution marks a “historic investment.” Ligia Guallpa, Executive Director of WJP, said that the contribution “is a meaningful step to raise and enforce robust labor standards in an informal sector with non-traditional employment relations. It will allow entire communities to set fair wages, better working conditions and will improve the quality of life of workers and their families.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, however, many Americans do not see it that way: the Times notes the influx of angry comments on the Daily News article on the announcement of the grant.

Writing for the Washington Post, Lydia DePillis covers the story of a government contractor who thought she was entitled to maternity leave, but lost her job after asking for it. Ariel Wilson Cetrone worked for the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities, putting in 40 hours a week, but because she was a contractor, she was “not entitled to benefits like workers compensation or unemployment insurance — or more importantly when she became pregnant, the eight weeks of paid family leave that D.C. government employees get.” When Cetrone heard about all of the lawsuits regarding misclassification, she questioned whether her contract might be illegal, and raised her concerns. The result? She was fired. A spokesman for the Commission on the Arts and Humanities said that Cetrone was fired because of a funding error, but the agency is still reviewing the classification issue. As DePillis notes, “if the District misstepped, it wouldn’t be the only one. Disputes over the role of contractors are becoming commonplace after the federal government and others outsourced many functions.”

Politico reports that the “Labor Department’s proposed fiduciary rule for the brokerage industry will likely be finalized before the end of the year, triggering an almost-certain attempt from the rule’s critics to try to kill it in court.” After four days of hearings at the Labor Department, little new agreement has been reached. Financial industry lobbyists and company executives remain at odds with Labor Department officials over the provision requiring brokers who offer retirement investment advice to act in their clients’ best financial interest. Because the fight will likely end up in court, the Obama Administration wants to get the rule finalized by the end of the year so that it can be the one to defend it in court.

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