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Opinion: Overhaul wage and hour rules to protect Coloradans’ most important resource: their time

Workers rally at a news conference outside of the Colorado Department of Labor offices in downtown Denver on Wednesday, Aug. 28, 2019. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

It often surprises people when they learn my business, Seattle Fish Company, was actually born and raised right here in Denver. Founded in 1918 by my grandfather, the company started out importing oysters by rail from the Pacific coast, and now, over one hundred years and multiple generations later, we’re a thriving business that imports fish from every corner of the globe. That success is more than just a product of my family’s multi-generational ownership — it’s the result of generations of dedicated employees and their families.

While some things at Seattle Fish Company haven’t changed since my grandfather’s time, the economy we operate in certainly has. One key difference includes how businesses compensate workers and protect their time. There’s maybe no greater example of this than what has happened to our nation’s overtime threshold.

James Iacino

Nearly a century ago, overtime standards were established to ensure almost all employees — particularly those who weren’t top executives — enjoyed either the benefits of a 40-hour work week or were paid “time and a half” for their work beyond 40 hours. Only those executives and managers who truly could determine the rules and schedules of the workplace were intended to be exempt from overtime standards.

Rather than requiring businesses like Seattle Fish Company to conduct the arduous task of determining whether each employee’s duties qualified them as executives, administrators, or professionals under a complex statute, the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) established a salary threshold for determining overtime eligibility. Employees making below that salary threshold were then eligible for overtime pay at 2.5 times their standard rate.

In 1938, the salary threshold was set at three times the minimum wage. The threshold was adjusted over time, and by 1975, more than 60% of all salaried workers in the United States were covered by the overtime threshold. 

Unfortunately, at around $25,000, today’s overtime threshold is just equivalent  to Colorado’s 2020 minimum wage of $12 an hour, not three times it. If it were, Colorado’s salary threshold would be $74,880.

The lack of any meaningful update to this threshold has resulted in the number of salaried Coloradans falling to fewer than 8% today. That means there are close to 400,000 Coloradans who should receive overtime protections but don’t. Colorado must do better.

We can do this by joining states such as Washington and Pennsylvania that are reexamining their overtime rules and resetting them to meet the changing demands of our economy. We can do the same here and set a standard that values employees, their families, and the communities that make Colorado great.

READ: Colorado Sun opinion columnists.

As I have seen firsthand at Seattle Fish Company, giving my employees either the time off they deserve or paying them properly for their extra work results in better and happier workers. Time spent relaxing or with their families makes them more attentive, less stressed, and more engaged in their work. When they need to work extra hours, providing fair compensation ensures my employees know our company values their time. 

The salary threshold is not only a beneficial standard for employees, but also for the entire business sector. Businesses such as mine find assurance in knowing the standard is applied fairly across the industry, and no specific business is incentivized to change the duties or misclassify workers to avoid overtime standards.

Last week, the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment received comments from employees, businesses, and nonprofits asking it to make the needed updates to Colorado’s overtime threshold, raising it to 2.5 times the minimum wage, or $62,400 when the minimum wage reaches $12 per hour. This is a reasonable step for CDLE and one that brings

Colorado a step closer to the true intent of the overtime salary threshold that greatly benefits Colorado families. In fact, it’s estimated this change would bring overtime protections to over 60,000 fathers and 55,000 mothers in Colorado.

As a business owner, I know this standard will require changes to how I operate my company. To ensure we respect the time of employees, I might need to hire more staff to pick up additional hours, pay my workers more when they work more than 40 hours, or increase salaries above the new threshold. These are not only changes my employees need and deserve, but changes required to guarantee the ongoing success of my business.

Employees do better when their time is valued and respected. Updating a ridiculously out of date threshold to a reasonable standard makes both business and policy sense. Colorado must continue to be a leader in how we build a great economy that remains competitive and respects one of the greatest assets of all — our time.


Seattle Fish Company CEO James Iacino is the grandson of Seattle Fish Co. a family business.


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