A proposed change in U.S. Labor Department regulations that would help guarantee overtime pay for more than 1.3 million low-wage workers could perversely result in some nurses becoming ineligible for the perk.
At a time when hospitals are struggling with a nursing shortage, new standards for white-collar employees would exempt some nurses from overtime pay because they have gained knowledge in the classroom and the workplace, according to the American Nurses Association.
In a letter to the Labor Department dated June 13, ANA Director of Government Affairs Rose Gonzalez wrote that the proposed regulations "could virtually eliminate every registered nurse in an administrative position from overtime pay." The ANA does not have an estimate of how many nurses would be affected by the new overtime rules.
The ANA contends that a move to include nurses in a group that is exempt from overtime will encourage the use of mandatory overtime by hospital administrators. The lobbying group also said experienced nurses would be penalized for making too much money, and hospitals' efforts to retain their most seasoned nurses would be in jeopardy.
"We find this very disturbing," ANA spokeswoman Carol Cooke said. "We should be doing everything we can to improve the work environment. It is going to discourage people from getting into the profession."
A 2001 ANA survey found that 67% of nurses worked mandatory or unplanned overtime every month and 10% of those who worked overtime said they did so at least eight times a month, Cooke said.
Tammy McCutchen, administrator of the Labor Department's wage and hour division, said the proposed changes would not affect nurses. McCutchen said she is taking under consideration public comments from nurses and the ANA. The changes in the Fair Labor Standards Act would take effect in the first quarter of 2004, she said.
"We had no intent to change the status of any nurses," McCutchen said.
The proposed regulations would raise the minimum salary threshold to qualify for overtime from $155 per week to $425, the first change since 1975. Workers are exempt from overtime if they also perform office or nonmanual work and hold a position of responsibility, according to the guidelines.
White-collar workers who earn an annual salary of $65,000 or more, perform office work and hold a position of responsibility also are exempt from overtime pay under the proposed rules, she said. "Updating these regulations is long overdue-the types of jobs people do and the skills they need have changed but the regulations have not," McCutchen said.
The proposal also will include more nurses in the "learned professionals" category because the proposal now eliminates overtime for nurses who have gained knowledge and educational experience while on the job. Previously, the labor laws only excluded overtime for nurses who had advanced knowledge gained in the classroom, said Christopher Donnellan, assistant director of government affairs for the ANA.
By expanding the number of professional workers that will be exempt from overtime pay, Gonzalez said, hospitals will have lower overtime costs and will be more likely to use mandatory overtime as a staffing strategy.
In her letter, Gonzalez also wrote that the $65,000 threshold would exclude some of the most experienced nurses from overtime protections and would undermine efforts to retain them.
But McCutchen said nurses who are members of unions could continue to collect overtime pay through collective-bargaining agreements with their unions. "Nurses shouldn't be concerned," she said. "Collective bargaining will help."