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Hurting the ones you love: one of the Obama Administration’s calling cards is a penchant for misguided economic policy; the change in an overtime rule announced Wednesday by the Department of Labor (DOL) is a classic example. The DOL has amended the rule, which requires payments of time-and-a-half to workers who exceed 40 hours per week, by doubling the threshold at which salaried employees are exempt from overtime to $47,500 annually. This affects almost 5 million workers earning between the old threshold of $23,660 and the new threshold. While the media heralds Obama for “lifting the wages of millions of workers”, those with a grasp of economic reality know that it is a destructive policy.

The rule change is unambiguously bad for employers, many of which are small businesses. That should not be too difficult to understand. Most private employers operate in competitive markets and do not earn lavish profits at the expense of their employees. They need good employees, especially those in positions of responsibility, and they must pay them competitively. By imposing higher costs on these businesses, the rule puts them in a position of greater vulnerability in the marketplace. The higher costs also include extra record keeping to stay in compliance with the rule. The impact on new business formation is likely to be particularly damaging:

We might be told that the answer for a startup is simply to ‘go and raise more money.’ But — aside from diluting the founders who are paying for the company with their sweat in exchange for the hope of a payoff that comes in years, if ever — raising capital is the single most difficult thing I do as a startup entrepreneur. I would invite anyone not in our field to give it a shot before he endorses a regulation that will impose greater capital costs on us.

Regulators often act as though they cannot imagine a world where a few hundred or a few thousand dollars can make the difference between success and failure. If you raise our costs even modestly, you will put some of us out of business.

Shutting down, or not starting up, is a bad outcome, but that will be a consequence in some cases. However, there are other margins along which employers might respond. First, a lucky few well-placed managers might be rewarded with a small salary bump to lift them above the new exemption threshold. More likely, employers will reduce the base salaries of employees to accommodate the added overtime costs, leaving total compensation roughly unchanged.

Many other salaried employees with pay falling between the old and new thresholds are likely to lose their salaried status. Their new hourly wage might be discounted to allow them to work the hours to which they’re accustomed, as demotivating as that sounds. If their employers limit their hours, it is possible that a few extra workers could be hired to fill the gap. Perhaps that is what the administration hopes when it claims that an objective of the new rule is to create jobs. Unfortunately, those few lucky hires will owe their jobs to the forced sacrifice of hours by existing employees.

A change from a salary to hourly pay will have other repercussions for employees. Their relationships to their employers will be fundamentally transformed. Ambitious “hourly” managers might not have the opportunity to work extra hours in order to demonstrate their commitment to the business and a job well done. When the rule change was first proposed last June, I paraphrased a businessman who is one of my favorite bloggers, Warren Meyer (also see Meyer’s follow-ups here and here):

As [Meyer] tells it, the change will convert ambitious young managers into clock-punchers. In case that sounds too much like a negative personality change, a more sympathetic view is that many workers do not mind putting in extra hours, even as it reduces their effective wage. They have their reasons, ranging from the non-pecuniary, such as simple work ethic, enjoyment and pride in their contribution to reward-driven competitiveness and ambition.

As hourly employees, these workers might have to kiss goodbye to bonus payments, certain benefits, and flexible work arrangements, not to mention prestige. The following quotes are from a gated Wall Street Journal article but are quoted by James Pethokoukis in his piece at the AEIdeas blog of the American Enterprise Institute:

Jason Parker, co-founder of K-9 Resorts, a franchiser of luxury dog hotels based in Fanwood, N.J., said the chain will reduce starting pay for newly hired assistant managers to about $35,000 from the $40,000 it pays now. That will absorb the overtime pay he expects he would have to give them, he said. …

Terry Shea, co-owner of two Wrapsody gift shops in Alabama, would prefer to keep her store managers exempt from the overtime-pay requirement as they are now. But raising their salaries above the new threshold to ensure that would be too big of a jump for those jobs in her region, she said. Instead, she’ll convert the managers to hourly employees and try to limit their weekly hours to as close to 40 as possible. She’ll also have to stop giving them a comp day when their weekly hours exceed 46, a benefit she said they like as working moms.

‘I will be demoted,’ said one of her store managers Bridget Veazey, who views the hourly classification as a step backward. ‘Being salaried means I have the flexibility to work the way I want,’ including staying an extra 30 minutes to perfect a window display or taking work home, she said. She is particularly concerned Ms. Shea might stop taking the managers on out-of-town trips to buy goods from retail markets, an experience she said would help her résumé but includes long days.

Here is some other reading on the rule change: Nick Gillespie in Reason  agrees that it’s a bad idea. Andy Puzder in Forbes weighs in on the negative consequences for workers.  John Cochrane explores the simple economic implications of mandated wage increases, of which the overtime rule is an example. As he shows, only when the demand for labor hours is perfectly insensitive to wages can a mandated wage avoid reducing labor input.

This is another classic example of progressive good intentions gone awry. Government is singularly incapable of managing the private economy to good effect via rules and regulations. Private businesses hire employees to meet their needs in serving customers. The private compensation arrangements they make are mutually beneficial to businesses and their employees and are able to accommodate a variety of unique employee life-circumstances. Good employees are rewarded with additional compensation and more responsibility. By and large, salaried workers like being salaried! Hard work pays off, but the Obama Administration seems to view that simple, market truism as a defect. Please, don’t try to help too much!