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Experts: Congress Under Pressure on Overtime Rules

Late night on Capitol Hill? Experts think Congress may bow to pressure to pay overtime. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Workplace and labor law experts are predicting Congress will bow to external pressures and implement new overtime regulations, including the $50,440 annual salary threshold.  

The reason is that the Congressional Accountability Act, the legislation that governs Congress’ own workplace, was designed to keep pace with private sector employment laws, says Ross Eisenbrey, vice president of the Economic Policy Institute and a former Hill staffer.  

“The general rule in the CAA is that they will follow the rule of the private sector,” says Eisenbrey. “If Department of Labor sets [the overtime threshold] at $50,440, I expect that Congress will follow and do the same.”  

The new overtime salary threshold is likely to affect nearly half of all Capitol Hill staff , primarily House-side personal office staff, according to custom data produced by LegiStorm for CQ Roll Call.  

The political pressure is likely to mount on both sides of the aisle. Republicans may want to honor the intent of the CAA, which was conceived as part of the GOP’s 1994 Contract for America. Democrats may be inclined to support President Barack Obama’s agenda, the new overtime rules are part of the White House’s “Efforts to Grow the Middle Class,” and Obama referenced forthcoming overtime changes in his 2015 State of the Union address.  

“It would be politically unwise, especially for Democrats, to suggest their staff don't have to follow the rules they pushed the administration to implement,” said Mark Hanna, a partner at Murphy Anderson PLLC, a public interest law firm that represents unions and employees in wage and hour class actions.  

And pressure may be mounting from an unexpected corner — a workforce teeming with millennials who expect a greater work-life balance.  

Millennials — loosely defined as the generation born between 1980 and 2000 — already make up a growing proportion of Capitol Hill staff. Data compiled by LegiStorm estimate more than half the workforce on Capitol Hill is younger than 30 , and another approximately 20 percent are between the ages of 30 and 40. Even as millennials grow in their relative share of the workforce, they also are moving to more mid-level and senior positions, where office personnel decisions could fall into their portfolios.  

Brigid Schulte , a Washington Post reporter and author of "Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Time," believes more employers are taking active steps to cater to millennials, including moving away from prioritizing long hours and in-office face time.  

“What Millennials want — flexibility, work-life fit, meaningful work, to have a voice and be valued at work — is what ALL workers want,” Schulte told CQ Roll Call in an email. “Millennials haven't bought into the old system and aren't afraid to ask for it. And with advances in technology, they don't see any reason why they can't. And now that they're the largest living generation and will soon be the largest part of the workforce, they can no longer be ignored.”  

Julie Kashen, a former Hill staffer and current senior adviser to Make it Work, agrees millennials will lead the way in demanding workplace changes in all venues, including Capitol Hill. “That would include protection of overtime, both the 40 hour workweek and time and a half.”  

Congress’ lack of a unified response on the matter may be an indicator that it will not take action to block the regulations . “There has been no message out of Congress, no coherent opposition voiced yet,” said Judith Conti, federal advocacy coordinator at the National Employment Law Project. “Normally when there is a new regulation, there is a unified opposition message.”  

Conti pointed out that members of Congress, like other employers, aren’t required to pay any additional money to employees. Instead, they can choose to limit work hours to 40 per week and avoid paying overtime. Can the Capitol Hill culture be severed from the long hours and late nights that come with it? Perhaps a new generation is on the rise that thinks so.