Donald Trump won the presidency with a populist message and the support of working class voters. But, aside from Trump’s staunch opposition to trade deals, little of his agenda is actually geared toward improving the lot of the people who embraced him.
His cabinet selections so far have been heavy on billionaires and Wall Street financiers. His tax cuts would disproportionately help the wealthy. And he wants to repeal the 2010 health care law that has provided medical coverage to 22 million Americans.
But Trump will soon have a chance to do something meaningful for working class voters — something that would help millions of American workers beyond the 1,000 Carrier employees whose jobs had been slated to move from Indiana to Mexico before Team Trump intervened.
A new Labor Department rule would make 4.2 million more workers eligible for overtime pay. The rule had been set to take effect Dec. 1, but earlier this month a federal judge blocked its implementation. By appealing the ruling, or continuing a likely appeal from the Obama administration, Trump could demonstrate his concern for hard-working Americans.
As it stands now, only salaried workers earning less than $23,660 are guaranteed overtime pay when they put in more than 40 hours a week. People making more than that can be denied overtime by being designated as executive, administrative or professional employees.
If $23,660 seems like a laughably small amount to be designated as management, it is. For a family of four, it does not even reach the poverty line. The threshold has not changed since 1975, when 62% of salaried workers qualified for overtime. Today, only 7% do. And that number was even lower before 2004, when the Bush administration made some adjustments to the rule.
To combat the declining percentage of workers who qualify, the Obama administration’s Labor Department raised the figure to $47,476. At that level, 35% of salaried workers would qualify.
That seems like a fair level. The declining number of people collecting overtime pay beyond 40 hours is one reason why income inequality has grown so stark in recent years and middle-class wages have stagnated.
By pushing to defend the rule, or urging Congress to update the overtime laws if the rule is struck down in the courts, Trump could return to some of the populist themes he struck during the campaign.
In the judge’s preliminary ruling, he suggested that the Fair Labor Standards Actdoes not give the Labor Department the authority to update the salary threshold to adjust for inflation and wage growth. But legal experts point to contradictions in his ruling and a legal precedent for the Labor Department to set pay thresholds.
For a president-elect who says he wants to cut regulations, supporting a labor regulation might seem counter-intuitive. Sooner or later, though, Trump will have to decide whether he is going to govern as a man of the people or a man of moneyed interests.
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