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Dems to Obama: Go big on OT

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Senate Democrats are pressing the Obama administration to act boldly in its plan to extend overtime pay to millions of U.S. workers. 

The Department of Labor is expected to issue new overtime regulations next month expanding the number of workers who qualify for overtime pay, but Democrats and liberal policy groups are concerned millions of blue-collar workers will be left out. 

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“I don’t want employers to be able to refuse to pay overtime to people who’ve earned it,” said Ohio Sen. Sherrod BrownSherrod BrownSenate Dem won't rule out blocking Puerto Rico debt relief Dodd and Frank: Judge was wrong in Dodd-Frank ruling Bernie Sanders’s awkward return to the Senate MORE, the top Democrat on the Senate Banking Committee in the new Congress.

Salaried workers who qualify for overtime get paid time and a half when they work more than 40 hours in a week under the Fair Labor Standards Act. But many don’t qualify, under current regulations. 

Employees who make more than $455 a week, or $23,660 a year, are not eligible for overtime pay under the current regulations. 

“They’re workers and they’re not getting what they should in terms of time and a half,” said Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersSunday shows preview: Next steps after Trump upheaval Bernie fights for relevance Sanders shares star power with NY House hopeful MORE (I-Vt.).

 The Labor Department’s action comes at the direction of President Obama, who ordered up the regulations last March as part of his initiative to boost pay for middle-class workers. 

The rules, scheduled to be unveiled Feb. 15, remain in the works. 

“We continue working diligently to construct an updated overtime rule that reflects the president’s directive and the input we’ve sought from a wide array of stakeholders, including workers and their employers,” an agency spokeswoman said Wednesday in a statement. 

Business groups have complained that raising overtime pay would force employers to cut workers’ hours.

Expanding the overtime regulations will “create a perverse incentive that works against employees,” warned Jack Mozloom, spokesman for the National Federation of Independent Business. 

"Employers will lose the flexibility to control what they pay their workers, so they’ll have to make cuts elsewhere,” Mozloom said. “That will take the form of automation for some small business, they’ll cut hours for their employees, they’ll reduce their benefits, they may cut pay.

But a growing number of Democrats are rallying to stop what Brown terms “the erosion of overtime pay.”

Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) said many companies “game the system” under the current overtime rules. 

“You could be working 60 hours a week and not get any overtime pay,” he told The Hill. 

The rules would raise the salary threshold for employees, expanding overtime pay to previously ineligible employees like fast food shift supervisors. 

But the question is, by how much?

Van Hollen said the bar should be raised to more than $50,000 a year to “catch up with the real world, and catch up with inflation.”

In a letter sent to the White House last spring, Brown, Sanders and four other Senate Democrats called for the Labor Department to raise the threshold to $54,000, allowing millions more workers to qualify for overtime pay.

“These workers are not the highly compensated executives and professionals to whom the statutory exemption was intended to apply,” the lawmakers wrote. “They are struggling middle class workers who are often too overworked without any additional compensation.” 

But the senators said they are concerned by recent reports that the Labor Department might only raise the threshold to $42,000.

According to the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute, an additional 2.6 million workers would qualify for overtime if the bar were raised to $54,000 as opposed to $42,000.

The overtime rules have not kept pace with inflation, critics say. The salary threshold was last adjusted in 2004, during the George W. Bush administration.

These days, fewer salaried workers qualify for overtime pay, says Ross Eisenbrey, vice president of the Economic Policy Institute (EPI).

“You can scrub floors, dump trash and still be exempt from overtime pay,” he said.

The EPI estimates that raising the salary threshold to $51,000 would extend overtime pay to an additional six million workers. 

Even some Republicans are open to revisiting the overtime regulations. Though he wouldn’t speculate on whether or not the overtime threshold should be raised, or how high, Rep. Phil Roe (R-Tenn.) admitted, “it’s a reasonable thing to do.”

But the pressure for aggressive action is coming from the ranks of Senate Democrats. Among them is Sen. Patty MurrayPatty MurraySenate Dems link court fight to Congressional Baseball Game Reid: House-passed Zika deal a 'disgrace' Bernie Sanders’s awkward return to the Senate MORE (Wash.), the top Democrat on the Senate Committee on Health, Employment, Labor and Pensions. 

“I hope that they move in a direction that is relevant to this century and really help a lot of people who are struggling hard to put bread on the table and pay student loans,” Murray said Wednesday. 

Lydia Wheeler contributed