Newspapers alarmed about overtime revisions

Aug 1, 2015

By Tonda F. Rush
CEO and General Counsel | NNA

WASHINGTON—Newsrooms already struggling to cover their communities with smaller staffs and increasing demands reacted with alarm in July when the U.S. Department of Labor announced a sweeping revision to the overtime rules in the Fair Labor Standards Act.

DOL said it wanted to increase the minimum salary levels for professional, creative, executive and administrative employees from $23,660 per year to $50,440 per year, all in one huge jump. It estimates 4 million employees in the country will be reclassified and become newly eligible for overtime pay. There are no regional adjustments based on cost of living in either the current or proposed threshold salaries.

Under existing rules, in order to be considered a salaried, exempt employee, a worker needs to earn at least $23,600 per year, be paid in one lump sum no matter no matter how many (or few) hours worked in a week, and perform the duties under one of the several categories of exempt employees. DOL says it is not currently considering changing the “duties” part of the requirement, though it is open to suggestions on that as well. But it believes the minimum threshold, which has not been adjusted since 1975, should be increased all at once to make up for the lost years without increases. It also proposes to annually raise the minimum salary threshold by some objective inflation test, although that is not decided yet, either. It is receiving public comments through Sept. 4.

The issue of community newspapers and overtime rules has been much litigated over the years, particularly on the application to journalists.

Former dean of journalism at the University of California at Berkeley, Ben Bagdikian, testified in a lawsuit against the Concord Monitor in the early ‘90s that journalists were not professionals. No degree is required as a condition of their jobs, they do not draw upon an academic body of knowledge, and they do not engage in creativity. Instead, he said, they are required to observe and write. On the strength of his testimony and DOL argument, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit ruled journalists out of the professional realm. The DOL rules soon followed suit. Most newspaper reporters, and even many editors, are not salaried now and are eligible for overtime.

But for those who may be exempt as administrators because they supervise staff, or under other rules, salaries are permitted. That rule also applies to outside salespeople and some others. All of that may change after September.

National Newspaper Association members responded to a survey on their attitudes toward the rules change. Among the findings:

• More than 60 percent said they already struggle to keep their newsroom staffs within a 40-hour workweek.

• Nearly 15 percent said the challenge was primarily in the sports department.

• 55% said they pay overtime when required, although more said they either don’t permit overtime hours, or let employees take time off within the pay period to even out their time.

• Only 17 percent said they would be able to pay the overtime under new rules.

• 30% said they would have to eliminate jobs, and 41 percent said they would hire more part-time staff.

• 70% said it would affect employment in their communities by driving employers to eliminate jobs.

• 11% said they would not be affected. Some added comments that the industry would simply have to adjust.

NNA members with comments on the proposed rules are encouraged to respond to the member survey at

National Newspaper Association President John Edgecombe Jr., publisher of The Signal in Geneva, NE, said the NNA board of directors had requested the survey so it could consider how deeply the industry might be affected.

“NNA publishers want to be responsible members of their communities. We are sensitive to the fact that our staffs also have private lives. I think our generation has managed differently than perhaps our parents and grandparents may have, when people pretty much lived in the newsroom, to make sure our staffs’ lives are not consumed by their jobs. At the same time, we are in a news-breaking, deadline-driven business, where creativity and curiosity have to drive our news coverage. News doesn’t happen on a 40-hour workweek, and most reporters don’t want to be caged by the rules so they cannot cover stories. Budgets are tight because revenues are tight, and this is probably our new normal.

“We want to do the right thing, but we recognize that great leaps in salary requirements like the Labor Department proposes would simply handcuff us when we are trying to cover our communities,” he said.

Edgecombe said his board would develop a policy in response to members’ comments and respond to DOL’s request for information.