One of the more frustrating things in politics is when politicians tout a policy as universal when, in fact, it is riddled with exceptions. The one I hear the most is describing the top income tax rate as the tax rate that rich people pay. We don’t tax “rich people’s income” at 39%, we only tax rich people’s income at 39% to the extent it’s over $413,200 and is not earned from municipal bonds and is not earned through capital gains or the sale of collectibles–which counts out most of the income rich people earn. It’s a sham, and both parties employ it.
But here’s another one that came to my attention today: minimum wage and overtime laws. We know already that these laws have some exemptions. Waiters and other tipped employees can make less than the minimum hourly wage. Professionals and managers may not be eligible for overtime. But until today, I didn’t know that home health care workers were guaranteed neither the minimum wage nor the overtime rate after forty hours per week.
For decades, the Labor Department had followed a policy that home-care workers were not eligible for minimum wage and overtime pay provisions of federal law. Two years ago, it changed its mind, concluding that the home-care industry had changed markedly, with fewer patients being treated in nursing homes and hospitals and more receiving care at home.
There are problems with minimum wage laws. Set too high, they will crowd out jobs as it becomes cheaper to outsource or automate tasks. But if we have them, they should apply equally to all professions. For too long, we’ve allowed exceptions to labor laws for jobs filled by rich kids (corporate and government internships) and jobs created to serve rich people (home health care, caddies, waitstaff).
If the law is a good one, we should let it be enforced against all employees. If it’s a bad one, we should still enforce it so that people can see it’s negative impact and repeal it. Exceptions and waivers only serve to keep bad laws in force. They let the powerful and politically connected ignore the law while everyone else follows it and is disadvantaged. If the government insists on forcing a one-size-fits-all wage law on the country, then it should actually enforce it on the whole country, not just those without the power to avoid it. Bravo to President Obama’s Department of Labor (words I thought I’d never type!) for making enforcement of the laws slightly more equitable.