Teachers don’t qualify for overtime, no matter how they’re paid or how much they make. Now, the National Education Association is arguing they should.
The U.S. Department of Labor is considering raising the minimum salary threshold for worker exemptions under the Fair Labor Standards Act by about 55 percent, meaning that more non-teaching employees would qualify for overtime pay if they work more than 40 hours a week. The rule could affect workers like librarians and aides who aren’t assisting in classrooms.
Public comment for the changes closed on Tuesday.
In a public letter submitted to the department, the nation’s largest teachers’ union wrote that it supports the proposed update—but it also proposed a major new change to the law. It urged the Biden administration to go one step further and remove the exception for teachers so that they can earn overtime pay, too.
Currently, eligible employees are eligible for overtime pay if they earn less than $35,308 a year. The Labor Department has proposed raising the threshold to $55,068, or $1,059 weekly. But there’s a regulatory exemption for doctors, lawyers, and teachers.
“It no longer makes sense to treat teachers, 44 percent of whom are paid below the proposed salary threshold, the same as high-earning doctors and lawyers,” wrote Alice O’Brien, the general counsel for the NEA. “Instead, teachers, a heavily female profession that suffers from a large and growing wage gap compared with other similarly educated professionals, should be provided the same protections as other white-collar professionals whose exempt status depends not just on job duties, but also on salary.”
Last year, the median salary for doctors was $229,300, and the median salary for lawyers was $135,740, the NEA’s letter noted. The median pay for teachers was $66,397.
Forty-four percent of public school teachers—1.93 million people—earn less than the proposed salary threshold, according to the NEA’s data. And the vast majority of teachers start their careers making less than the threshold, with an average starting salary of $42,844, despite recent legislative efforts to raise it to $60,000.
Yet teachers report working long hours. Data from the EdWeek Research Center has found that a typical teacher works about 54 hours a week.
Could districts afford such a change?
The Biden administration is not currently proposing such an overhaul to the Fair Labor Standards Act. And such a change would carry huge financial consequences for school districts.
Districts would have to choose whether to increase teachers’ salaries to exceed the threshold or have teachers who make below the amount collect overtime pay.
That would have a significant impact on school and district operations, said Noelle Ellerson Ng, the associate executive director of advocacy and governance at AASA, The School Superintendents Association.
Districts might not be able to afford to have as many teachers, meaning class sizes could increase, and hiring could stall, she said.
Superintendents are “stewards of public dollars,” she said—they’re faced with the competing tension of empowering employees and safeguarding district budgets.
Even so, O’Brien said in an interview that low wages are driving people out of the teaching profession and discouraging young people from entering. “This is a real crisis in the teaching profession,” she said.
Offering overtime pay to teachers—or encouraging districts to raise salaries so they don’t have to pay overtime—could mitigate shortages and lessen hiring costs for districts, O’Brien argued.
And while such a proposal isn’t currently on the table, she hopes the Labor Department will consider it alongside the salary threshold rule.
“The department has always listened to us respectfully, and I hope they will listen to us now,” O’Brien said.
The proposed changes are still costly
Some national education organizations have opposed the Biden administration’s threshold proposal altogether.
AASA, the Association of Educational Service Agencies, and the Association of School Business Officials, International, submitted a public letter to the department on Tuesday arguing that the proposed threshold is “far too high.”
The Labor Department last raised the threshold in 2019, which took effect in January 2020. Typically, the department revisits the salary threshold every five to nine years, and the AASA, AESA, and ASBO letter urged the department to stick to that cadence.
“We are sensitive to the current economic realities,” the letter stated. “At the same time, we believe DOL should wait to update the salary threshold until inflationary pressures have cooled off and employers have a better understanding of the post-pandemic economic challenges and realities they face.”
The Biden proposal is similar to one crafted in 2016 by the Obama administration that would have raised the minimum salary threshold to $47,000.
A federal judge struck down that proposal before it could take effect after business groups and 21 states sued to stop it, agreeing with them that the Labor Department exceeded its authority and set the threshold too high.