Sestak campaign may be violating federal pay guidelines

Senator Arlen Specter isn’t letting up on criticizing the salaries Congressman Joe Sestak pays his campaign staffers. In an interview this morning, Specter said Sestak is violating state and federal law by paying ten employees less than the $7.25 hourly minimum wage.

Specter’s campaign came up with those figures by evaluating Sestak’s Federal Election Commission report, taking his staff’s monthly salaries, and dividing them into hourly rates, assuming 40-hour workweeks.

The incumbent urged Sestak to increase his payroll, saying, “If you don’t, it brings up images of the sweat shop or plantation activity. That’s just in violation of the law.”

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Specter may have a point. A look at federal and state guidelines shows Sestak’s campaign probably isn’t breaking Pennsylvania law, but may be violating the federal statutes. Both the state and federal guidelines provide exemptions for salaried employees – that is, people who make a set non-hourly wage. The Sestak campaign says that’s the case with its employees.

Unlike the state’s law, federal guidelines generally require workers to make at least $455 a week to qualify for the exemption. According to the FEC report, eleven Sestak staffers do not meet that threshold.

The big unknown is whether or not the campaign is covered by federal law. According to the Department of Labor website, all companies with “an annual dollar volume of sales or business done of at least $500,000” must meet federal standards. Does that count campaign contributions or expenses? I’m waiting for Department of Labor clarification on the issue. Alternatively, all employees who conduct “interstate commerce” are covered by the federal statute. “Examples…include those who: produce goods (such as a worker assembling components in a factory or a secretary typing letters in an office) that will be sent out of state, regularly make telephone calls to persons located in other States, handle records of interstate transactions, travel to other States on their jobs, and do janitorial work in buildings where goods are produced for shipment outside the State.”

Over and over again throughout the country’s legal history, judges have applied a very low bar to what constitutes interstate commerce. From the reading of the document, it seems Sestak staffers would be covered simply by making phone calls to the Congressman while he was in Washington, DC.

As for Sestak, his campaign referred me to last week’s statement: “I’m so grateful to the men and women of my staff who have sacrificed for the cause of electing a real Democrat to the U.S. Senate. It’s a shame with the enormous challenges facing our country that Senator Specter is spending his time working on this, rather than focusing on getting our economy in shape or reforming our healthcare system. This kind of dishonest negativity and focus on personal attacks is why so many people hate Washington-style politics.” Yesterday he told the Inquirer, “We’re doing everything right.”

About pubradiopolitics
Scott covers state government and politics for Pennsylvania's public radio stations, including WITF in Harrisburg, WHYY in Philadelphia and WDUQ in Pittsburgh.

2 Responses to Sestak campaign may be violating federal pay guidelines

  1. Jake says:

    “Plantation activity”??? Wow. That’s pretty disrespectful, if not racist.

  2. Pingback: Sestak camp may be violating federal pay guidelines… | GrassrootsPA

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