updated 4/26/2004 11:07:04 PM ET 2004-04-27T03:07:04

The Labor Department, facing political heat over new overtime pay rules, is creating a new enforcement task force that will focus on protecting workers eligibility rights.

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Labor Secretary Elaine Chao is to announce the new group Tuesday afternoon after meeting in New Orleans with Wage and Hour Division managers and district directors.

The department’s new rule, announced last week, overhauls the regulations that determine what white collar workers are eligible for overtime pay under the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act. It takes effect in August and does not require approval from Congress.

The new rule and the task force “reinforce our proven commitment to protecting workers’ rights,” Chao said in a statement.

The task force, made up of Wage and Hour Division officials, is being created because of “our concern that the massive misinformation campaign against the new overtime security rules could undermine efforts to make employers live up to their new obligations under the rule and jeopardize workers’ overtime pay protections,” Chao said.

Heavily criticized, heavily revised
The department first proposed changes to the regulations in March 2003, and was heavily criticized by labor unions and Democrats as an attempt to take away overtime eligibility for workers. The department said its plan would have cut overtime pay for about 644,000 workers, while critics said the number was closer to 8 million.

Officials heavily revised the plan, claiming most white-collar workers earning between $23,660 and $100,000 will not lose their overtime eligibility. To help sell the plan in an election year, the department has dubbed its overtime overhaul the “Fair Pay” plan, and has tried to shift focus to protecting workers’ eligibility.

More than 340,000 workers received a record $212.5 million in back wages as a result of Wage and Hour Division investigations last year, the department said. That compares with 263,593 workers who received $175.6 million in back pay in 2002.

Chao will testify Wednesday about the new regulations at a House Education and Workforce Committee hearing.

Democrats and labor unions say their concerns about overtime takeaways remain because exemptions are being expanded in the new rule that will cover more workers. But they don’t yet have an estimate on how many they think could lose eligibility.

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