Bill would cut overtime for some in IT
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Computer professionals are known for working long hours for large salaries and for the glory that comes with a product making it to the mainstream.
That stereotype may hurt the cause of opponents to a new bill that proposes to expand the number of computer professionals who are exempt from overtime pay -- legislation that critics argue could eliminate overtime for almost anyone in the industry.
Supporters argue the changes are needed to account for jobs that didn't even exist when the rules were written in 1992 and to keep IT jobs from heading overseas.
The Computer Professionals Update Act, introduced in October by Sen. Kay Hagan, D-North Carolina, proposes to broaden exemptions to the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 that disqualify certain high-level computer professionals from receiving overtime compensation.
Current law exempts computer systems analysts, computer programmers and software engineers. Workers who use system analysis techniques to determine hardware, software or system functional specifications; who perform functions related to user specifications, system design specifications or machine operating systems; or anyone who performs a combination of the stated duties are also exempt.
To qualify for the exemption, computer professionals also must make at least $27.63 per hour or a salary of at least $455 per week.
The original exemptions for computer professionals were passed in 1992 to address high overtime pay for employees who generally had flexibility to determine their own working hours.
Under the proposed changes, those exemptions would apply to "any employee working in a computer or information technology occupation" and would include those who perform work related to computers, information systems, components, networks, software, hardware, databases, security, Internet, Intranet or websites.
Professionals whose duties include "securing, configuration, integration, debugging, modification of computer or information technology or enabling continuity of systems and applications" as well as those who direct the work of exempt professionals are also included in the exemption.
The bill has been referred to the Congressional Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions for consideration.
A summary by the Congressional Research Service, a nonpartisan agency within the Library of Congress that conducts research and analysis for legislators, states that the bill "effectively eliminates overtime pay for all IT professionals."
The law's supporters say it's intended to close loopholes that allow high-paying computer professionals in positions created after the initial exemptions were written to receive overtime in addition to above-average salaries.
Sen. Hagan's office did not immediately return a call for comment.
Jennifer Douris, of the TechServe Alliance, an Alexandria, Va.-based collaboration of IT services firms, clients, consultants and suppliers, said the organization supports the bill's attempts to update legislation that doesn't mention several new professional titles and makes no reference to the Internet.
She noted that summary court judgments have all stated the burden of proof lies on employers to prove a specific job falls under the exemption and that the exemption must be interpreted narrowly. She also cited U.S. Department of Labor regulations that specifically prohibit including several low-wage positions.
"Under current DOL regulation, individuals do not qualify for this exemption if they are just using or depending on a computer or software as a part of his/her daily work. Thus, this proposal will not fold in call center employees, data entry personnel, anyone who manufactures or repairs computer equipment or anyone else who simply uses a computer in the course of their work," she said in an email message.
But Ross Eisenbrey, vice president of the Washington, D.C.-based Economic Policy Institute, said the act is written in a way that allows for confusion regarding who should get overtime pay.
He said the salary threshold, if anything, should be revised to reflect the actual wages of computer professionals. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics cites the mean average hourly salary for computer and mathematical occupations in 2010 as $37.15 per hour and the mean yearly salary as $81,720.
"The salary threshold is absurdly low. It's a near-poverty salary that qualifies you as a professional and gets you exempted," he said.
Ms. Douris said professionals must meet both minimum pay requirements and hold a title that meets government requirements in order to be exempt. Although the law does not address revising salary requirements, which are set by the Department of Labor, she said the organization would support efforts to do so.
Citing the Congressional Research Service summary, David Cohen, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Department for Professional Employees, AFL-CIO, said the act is an attempt to rewrite labor laws to benefit computer companies.
He said several tech companies have settled lawsuits regarding the overtime exemption over the past seven years and many employees have already borne the brunt of those losses through pay cuts.
"Now those same companies want Congress to weaken labor laws. At this tough economic time, this is absolutely the wrong thing for Congress to do," he said.
Ms. Douris argued that the act has the potential to save American jobs that could easily go overseas if companies can no longer afford overtime costs, but that it also makes sure low-income workers aren't impacted.
"Outsourcing the IT industry is a growing problem. This bill is one important way we can make the U.S. more attractive to employers and keep these well paying jobs here in the U.S.," she said.
Mr. Cohen disputed that and predicted the bill could lead to even greater losses for the American jobs market.
"This is a threat to every U.S. professional worker. If these companies succeed in eliminating overtime protection for their industry, companies in every other private sector industry will want to do the same."
First Published February 23, 2012 12:00 am