Democrats, media on same page yet again

Joel Mowbray

1/14/2004 12:00:00 AM - Joel Mowbray

Have you heard the one about the Bush administration covertly aiding greedy employers who want to deprive 1.3 million low-income workers overtime pay?  If you haven?t, then you haven't been paying attention to Democrats?or the Associated Press.

  Last week, the AP ran a story accusing the Labor Department of giving ?tips? to employers on how to avoid paying overtime to low-income employees.  But no ?tips? were given to anyone, least of all employers.  Not that that stopped newspapers across the country from flogging the story, however.

  In an article touted as an ?AP Exclusive,? reporter Leigh Strope wastes no time mincing words, starting with the not-so-subtle headline: ?Labor Department offers employers tips to avoid overtime pay.?

  The Democratic National Committee couldn't have dreamed of a better way to set the stage?but the AP should have.

  Though most of the facts contained in the piece are technically correct, the context and the overall framing paint a picture that is simply not true.  No ?tips? were ever sent to employers.  The ?tips,? in fact, were compliance scenarios written up by eggheads on the government payroll, which is something these guys have to do every time a new regulation is drafted.

  The law mandates that all proposed regulations be subjected to cost-benefit analysis, which is done to make sure that red tape isn?t needlessly piled on by over-zealous bureaucrats.  And with the regulation in this case?mandating overtime pay for 1.3 million low-income workers?Labor Department policy wonks had to analyze the different ways employers could comply with the new regulation.

  Since the cost-benefit analysis was never given directly to businesses, the only way an employer could get hip to the ?tips? would be by reading the Federal Register, a painfully dry publication that probably has a lower readership than most high school newspapers.

  But to hear the AP tell it, the reader could conclude that Bush operatives were faxing secret ?options? to employers bent on sticking it to vulnerable workers.

  In the meat of the story, AP reporter Strope lists three bullet points with the ?options? employers were provided by the Labor Department.

  One ?option? to avoid paying overtime: give employees a raise.  Seriously.  Another way sneaky employers could avoid paying overtime: ?adhering to a 40-hour work week.?  Wow?what a conspiracy.  

  It?s the last bullet point, however, that is the supposed ?gotcha?: ?Workers? annual pay would be converted to an hourly rate and cut, with overtime added in to equal the former salary.? 

  The article continues, ?Essentially, employees would be working more hours for the same pay.?  Except, that?s not true.  Most would actually end up making at least as much as before under this ?option,? maybe even more.

  What the cost-benefit analysis actually stated was that salaried workers could be converted to hourly pay in such a way that, with overtime factored in, there would be ?virtually no changes in the total compensation paid.?  In other words, the worker in this scenario would be working the <i>same</i> hours for the same pay.  But if that worker puts in more overtime than usual, his total pay would go up accordingly.

  To be fair, the legalese used in cost-benefit analyses is difficult for even most lawyers to understand.  But the job of an AP reporter is to get those tricky details right.

  Because it?s AP?a news service with a well-deserved reputation for accuracy?the article ended up running in scores of newspapers and on the web sites of over 100 publications.  More than a dozen newspapers also wrote ?shame on you? editorials, scolding the Bush administration for its part in a shadowy conspiracy to keep low-income workers from getting overtime pay.

  The Democratic presidential candidates also jumped in the fray, which the same AP reporter noted in an apparent follow-up story headlined, ?Democrats criticize Bush administration suggestions on overtime.?  In that article, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry is typical when he claims that the cost-benefit analysis is a ?how-to guide for big business to avoid paying workers the overtime pay they?ve earned.?

  Of course, what Kerry said wasn?t true?but he must have figured that if the AP can get away with it, why couldn?t he?