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New Overtime Law Vague on Reporters, but Could Be ‘Nightmarish’ Aya Kawano

By Joe Strupp

Published: August 22, 2004 12:01 AM EST

NEW YORK As the federal government prepares on Monday to implement new overtime rules that make it easier for more employers to deny or limit overtime, the head of The Newspaper Guild is concerned that the new policy, which is vague on how reporters are to be treated, will make their lives more stressful.

“I think the effect will be more pressure to work off the clock,” said Linda Foley, president of the Guild-CWA, which represents more than 35,000 members at more than 100 newspapers. “I think you are going to end up with more litigation.”

The provision of the new law that affects reporters involves the criteria for employees who are deemed to be executives, “professionals” or administrative workers, titles that are often exempt from overtime. Most journalists fall under the professional category, but the guidelines of which journalists are entitled to overtime is unclear, even by the law’s own
definitions.

According to the explanation of the new law posted on the Labor Department Web site, www.dol.gov, journalists are exempt from overtime if “their primary duty is work requiring invention, imagination, originality or talent.” Journalists are not exempt, and would have to be paid overtime, if “they only collect, organize and record information that is routine or already public, or if they do not contribute a unique interpretation or analysis to a news product.”

“The gray area has expanded and it is even fuzzier,” Foley said. “There is a nightmarish prospect of having some reporters covered and some not covered.”

Most newspapers that currently have newsroom collective bargaining agreements, such as The New York Times and The Washington Post, would likely not be affected, at least not right way, because they have overtime clauses in their current contracts, Foley said. She said most rovide for time-and-a-half pay after an eight-hour day or a 40-hour week.

But other papers without such contracts could be the focus of disputes. “I think it would be a nightmare to administer,” said Dennis Dressman,associate managing editor/administration for the Denver Rocky Mountain News, which has a contract through 2007 and pays overtime. “Would you be exempt when you are on a big project and not exempt when you cover courts?”

Tom Fiedler, executive editor of The Miami Herald, welcomed the change, saying it will free up management to compensate newsroom workers who go beyond a 40-hour week in other ways, such as compensatory time off.

“It is much more sensible because it much more suits the talents and work style of the newsroom,” said Fiedler. “The great majority of our staff will be exempt from the (overtime) rule because they bring creativity ad talent to what the do. Only those reporters who essentially work to the clock and whose role is more clerical than reportorial will get overtime pay.”

But, Fiedler stressed that all reporters who work extra hours will be compensated, probably with time off. “Most of the people in the newsroom ignore the clock, but a lot of them would like to take comp time,” he said.

Disputes over which reporters get overtime are likely to become more common, said Foley, as current Guild agreements expire and negotiations begin for future contracts. “It is unclear and what is going to happen is the courts are going to sort it out,” she said.

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