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Legislators advance overtime protection bill

Trea Lavery

Legislation currently under consideration in the Massachusetts State House would provide new overtime protections or strengthen current protections for 435,000 salaried workers across the state, approximately 330,000 more than similar federal legislation proposed by the Trump administration, according to a report released last week by the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center.

The state legislation would raise the salary threshold for required overtime time-and-a-half pay to twice the minimum wage, or $1,231 per week, by 2024.

“For workers paid a salary, weak, outdated and confusing overtime laws make it easy for employers to require them to work 50, 60 or more hours in a week without paying them anything more than if they had worked 40 hours,” the report says. “When this happens, salaried workers end up sacrificing their personal time — for free.”

Jeremy Thompson, the senior policy analyst at MassBudget who wrote the report, said in an interview that requiring overtime pay for salaried workers stops employers from forcing them to spend all of their time working by making them decide whether they can absorb the cost of overtime pay, or else hire an additional employee.

“This can lead to creating more jobs, but ultimately it allows people to just go home and take care of their kids and themselves and partake in the civic or religious life of their community and do whatever they please,” Thompson said. “That was the point of overtime laws when they were passed over 100 years ago.”

Currently, for salaried workers to be guaranteed overtime pay, they must pass both the “salary level test” and the “duties test.” According to federal law set in 2004, workers paid less than $455 per 40-hour work week and who do not serve “bona fide executive, administrative or professional” duties are guaranteed overtime. In Massachusetts, it is very difficult for salaried workers to meet these criteria, the MassBudget report says, because the salary threshold of $455 is already below the Massachusetts $12-per-hour minimum wage, and employers can easily say that their workers fit the vague description of the duties test.

The U.S. Department of Labor earlier this year proposed new regulations that would raise the salary threshold to $679 per week. While this would protect more workers than the current regulations, it is actually a step back from legislation created by the Department of Labor under President Barack Obama raising the threshold to $913 per week, which was struck down later that year by a federal judge due to a lawsuit brought by Republican states and business groups.

The Trump administration’s proposal would protect just 6 percent of salaried workers in Massachusetts, while the state legislation proposals would protect 25 percent.

State Representative Dan Donahue, who is sponsoring the bill in the State House, said that while the federal threshold may be enough to protect workers in some states, it’s not for Massachusetts.

“Even $15 an hour isn’t really enough to live in a high-cost state like Massachusetts,” Donahue said. “The cost of living in southern states is far lower … we want to make sure we’re protecting all the workers in our Commonwealth.”

State Senator Jason Lewis, another sponsor of the bill, agreed.

“Years of inaction on strengthening and updating the existing overtime law, coupled with the extremely high cost of living in Massachusetts, mean that we are long overdue for bold policy action to make sure that all workers in Massachusetts, salaried or non-salaried, are being paid fairly for their work,” Lewis said in a statement.

The state legislation would create new or strengthened protections for 24 percent of white, 38 percent of black salaried workers, 44 percent of Hispanic and 23 percent of Asian workers in Massachusetts; it would also protect half of salaried workers with a high school degree or less, and 20 percent of working parents (25 percent of mothers and 16 percent of fathers).

“It tends to be people in the early or middle part of their careers. It’s disproportionately people of color, it’s disproportionately women,” Thompson said. “By raising the salary threshold, you essentially say to them, you deserve the same protections that an hourly wage worker who’s working for you deserves.”

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