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comments by attorneys and staff at
Whitfield Bryson & Mason

Independence Day, the Economic Bill of Rights, and the Fair Labor Standards Act

Today, we commemorate our nation's independence from Britain and celebrate the freedoms on which this nation was founded, including life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

This should not just be a time of celebration but also a time to reflect on how we can continue to advance freedom and equality in our age. In the 1940s, President Franklin Roosevelt observed that the original bill of rights recognized a set of political freedoms, but that the time had come to acknowledge and enact a second bill of rights concerning economic freedoms.

As he said in a January 1944 speech to Congress: "We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. Necessitous men are not free men. People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made."

A cornerstone of President Roosevelt's economic vision was the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”), which established a national minimum wage as well as maximum hour requirements. The Supreme Court has described the law’s purpose as follows: “The principal congressional purpose in enacting the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 was to protect all covered workers from substandard wages and oppressive working hours, labor conditions that are detrimental to the maintenance of the minimum standard of living necessary for health, efficiency and general wellbeing of workers . . . the FLSA was designed to give specific minimum protections to individual workers and to ensure that each employee covered by the Act would receive a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work and would be protected from the evil of overwork as well as underpay.” Barrentine v. Arkansas-Best Freight Sys., Inc., 450 U.S. 728, 739 (1981) (internal citations and quotations omitted).

The law is designed to not just be enforced by the Department of Labor, but also by individuals who can petition the court for redress when their rights have been violated. In addition, individuals can band together and bring collective actions in which some workers file suit, but other workers, who also experience wage theft because of the employer’s unlawful practice, receive notice of the lawsuit and are allowed to join.

This past week, President Obama took a dramatic step toward expanding the law’s protections. First, some background: To enforce the law’s maximum hour requirements of 40 hours a week, many employees are entitled to time and a half (or 1.5 times their regular rate of pay) for each hour they work over 40 in a week. Hourly employees are among those entitled to receive overtime pay. Salaried employees can also be eligible for overtime. Under the current law, if salaried employees earn below $455 per week, or $23,600 per year, then they, too, must receive overtime pay. Even if salaried employees earn above that mark, they can be entitled to overtime pay unless the nature of the job duties they perform qualifies them for an exemption for “professionals,” “executives” or “administrators.”

President Obama’s proposed rule would more than double the salary threshold to $50,440 by 2016. This would move a large swathe of workers from the category of employees who may receive overtime pay based on the duties they perform to the category who must receive overtime pay because they do not meet the salary threshold. Conservative estimates suggest that the change would raise the pay of over five million workers nationally.

WBM is proud to carry on the country’s rich tradition of ensuring that workers receive a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. We represent workers in class and collective actions who have been unlawfully denied overtime pay. Whether it is assistant managers at fast food restaurants misclassified as exempt from the overtime laws, nurses at hospitals who work through their meal breaks without pay, or oil and gas workers paid the wrong overtime rate, WBM fights relentlessly for its clients to receive the pay that they are owed.

(Social media link photo credit: Maryland GovPics)