WASHINGTON -- A little-noted provision in the House Republicans' controversial energy and transportation bill would strip several thousand workers within the rail-industry of their federal minimum-wage and overtime protections, potentially making low-wage jobs pay even less.
Listed in the bill under the heading "Technical Correction," provision 6602 would exempt several companies who transport rail workers from their obligations under the Fair Labor Standards Act, the 1938 law that guarantees basic worker rights. The carveout would allow a handful of boutique contractors to pay no overtime to their drivers who haul rail workers between worksites, often driving long distances of 300 miles or more.
"It's outrageous that House Republicans are trying to take away overtime protections for a class of workers at the behest of a special interest," Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) said of the provision in a statement to HuffPost. "These workers deserve the right to overtime pay. It's not only a matter of fairness, but also a matter of public safety."
Earnings for rail-crew drivers often work out to little more than minimum wage, and many drivers must remain on-call for long stretches. Miller and others worry that by depressing wages further, the quality of the work -- and, hence, roadway safety -- could decline. Miller is expected to offer an amendment to the bill this week that would maintain the labor protections for rail drivers.
The House's transportation committee, which is chaired by Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.) and approved the bill, did not return a request for comment from The Huffington Post made late Friday. Officials at several of the companies that could potentially benefit from the change -- including Professional Transportation, Inc., RailCrew Express and Coach America -- could not be reached.
Jim Stem, legislative director at the United Transportation Union, said he just recently became aware of the provision's implications, given that the bill would merely tweak a few words in existing law. He called the provision a giveway to contractors in the rail industry. According to Stem, many of the rail drivers already earn low wages and work long hours; the loss of overtime, he said, would have an immediate effect on their paychecks.
"It amuses me when [House Speaker] John Boehner says there are no earmarks in there," Stem said of the bill. "This is an earmark for a handful of wealthy people who own these companies. This is a windfall."
It isn't merely Democrats who are angered by the transportation plan put forth by House Republicans. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who was a Republican congressman before taking the helm at the department, last week declared it "the worst transportation bill I've ever seen during 35 years of public service," saying it "hollows out" the department's top priority of safety and "guts" the administration's transportation efforts of the last three years.
"This is the most partisan transportation bill that I have ever seen," LaHood told Politico.
The $260 billion, five-year bill calls for more highways and toll roads to be paid for with offshore drilling. In addition to cutting funding for bike and pedestrian projects, the bill would slash subsidies for Amtrak by 25 percent; privatize food and drink vending on Amtrak trains while guaranteeing such sales with taxpayer money; and substantially increase the size of trucks allowed on roadways, a potential boon for the trucking industry but a change that's opposed by environmental groups.