National overtime eligibility changes President Obama announced yesterday could have a massive impact on the budgets and workflow of local newsrooms, and it’s unlikely that newspaper publishers already focused on cutting costs have taken it into account yet.
Beginning in 2016, the threshold for qualifying as an exempt, salaried manager will be annual wages of $50,400, up from the current $23,660. In between lies MANY city editors, sports editors, even managing editors and editors in small newsrooms across the country who average far more than 40 hours a week and work lots of holidays without getting time and a half.
It’s bad timing for any publisher implicitly counting on low-paid managers to pick up the slack after newsroom layoffs.
And stepped-up scrutiny of overtime rules and eligibility carries a great deal of financial risk for newspaper publishers in general. With all of the downsizing that’s happened in recent years, there are many newsrooms with employees who are being paid as exempt managers but don’t manage anyone anymore and probably should be paid hourly. There are reporters submitting time cards that say “9 to 5” or “40 hours” when a cursory review of their work or time in the office will show they’re working overtime and not getting paid for it. And the problem might be worse than ever at newsrooms trying to maintain comparable coverage after the layoffs of the past few years.
If the Department of Labor starts pursuing wage and hour complaints at newsrooms, the consequences for publishers who are looking the other way could be massive. Right before I started as editor of The Register Citizen in Connecticut 12 years ago, then-owner Journal Register Co. was hit with two Department of Labor lawsuits over the course of three years. Reporters and editors were paid tens of thousands of dollars in back wages based on the amount of time they said they worked vs. what they were encouraged to put down on their time cards.