Fixing overtime won’t increase underemployment

The American Enterprise Institute’s Aparna Mathur wrote an article claiming that the new overtime rules finalized recently by the Department of Labor could increase underemployment. The argument does not make much sense, however. Mathur tries to add to the wonky feel of her case by citing a recent (and good) Federal Reserve research note (or FEDS note, as they call it) on underemployment, but this is pure water-muddying; the FEDS note has nothing to do with the overtime rule.

First, a quick clarification because many are misunderstanding how the new rule works. The rule is only relevant to salaried workers—all workers paid by the hour are already eligible for overtime. Before the rule, only salaried worker whose pay was less than $455 a week were automatically eligible for overtime pay. This did not mean merely that salaried workers earning more than this didn’t earn time-and-half for hours worked in a week in excess of 40—t means they earned zero for each of those hours. The rule raises the threshold for determining automatic eligibility for overtime to $913 a week. Now, all salaried workers earning less than this amount must be paid (at time-and-a-half rates) for hours worked in a week in excess of 40.

Mathur argues that this rule will increase involuntary underemployment, and highlights findings from a recent FEDS note arguing that underemployment is currently even worse than traditional measures signal. However, Mathur’s description of the paper’s results highlights why her analysis of the overtime rule is so wrong. She writes about the FEDs note: “Relying on the more recent HRS data, the authors show that between 1992 and 2012, approximately 25 percent of workers reported that they had faced work-hour constraints, meaning they wanted more work but were unable to find it.”

Not quite. The Fed authors are very clear on a crucially important point: that the proper definition of underemployment is workers having fewer hours of work available to them “relative to the numbers they would prefer to work at current wages.

Salaried workers not eligible for overtime often do not receive “current wages” for hours worked in excess of 40. Instead they often earn nothing. That is, a worker was paid a salary based on a 40-hour work week, but was then forced by employers to put in 45 or 50 or 55 hours of actual work with no additional compensation. If such a worker has the hours they’re forced to work cut from 45 to 40 but keeps the same weekly pay, then it is really silly to label this an increase in “underemployment,” and no economist worth their salt would do this.

There really is no incentive at all for employers to cut the hours worked by employees below the 40-hour threshold. For salaried workers making between $455 and $913 per week today, their extra hours are often not compensated at all. So, the Mathur story of workers having their hours cut below what they would like to work at current wages just cannot happen.