A coming shift in the political winds could prove to be a windfall for entry- and mid-level workers—and a hefty bill for agencies across the country. The Biden administration is reexamining the overtime pay threshold, which delineates which U.S. workers must be paid time-and-a-half for any hours they work beyond a standard 40-hour workweek.
The "always on the clock" mentality is rampant in the ad industry, particularly since the beginning of the pandemic, but most agency employees have been exempted from overtime pay. Anyone making more than the threshold, currently $35,568 per year, does not need to be paid overtime, no matter how much they work. A Department of Labor rule will likely change that.
In testimony before Congress last month, Labor Secretary Marty Walsh said the current threshold is “definitely” too low. “We’re currently right now doing that, reviewing that regulation,” he said. “Literally, as we speak, we have people at the Department of Labor working on that.”
Walsh didn’t offer a specific number, but in March, four Congressional Democrats recommended a threshold of $82,732, phased in by 2026. That would entitle a far larger proportion of the industry to additional pay, perhaps tens of thousands of dollars for some people, especially those on the lower end of the pay ladder. For some agencies, especially small shops, it would affect nearly everyone.
“This is potentially a much bigger deal and hit for agencies outside the major markets who aren't already paying elevated pay scales,” says Alison Pepper, exec VP of government relations at the 4A’s. “I mean, $80,000 in Manhattan versus $80,000 in a city like Des Moines, that's not even remotely comparable. It seems to me that if you were to go that high with no adjustment for regionality, you're really going to kill the ability of entry-level hiring for a lot of agencies.”
Here we go again
If this game of shifting numbers sounds familiar, it’s happened a lot in the last few years. In its waning days, the Obama administration increased the threshold to $47,476, but a judge overturned the rule and the incoming Trump administration dropped it, opting for a more modest increase to the current level in 2019.