WASHINGTON – It seems like a simple proposition: give employees who work more than 40 hours a week the option of taking paid time off instead of overtime pay.
The choice already exists in the public sector. Federal and state workers can save earned time off and use it weeks or even months later to attend a parent-teacher conference, care for an elderly parent or deal with home repairs.
Republicans in Congress are pushing legislation that would extend that option to the private sector. They say that would bring more flexibility to the workplace and help workers better balance family and career.
The push is part of a broader Republican agenda undertaken by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., to expand the party’s political appeal to working families. The House is expected to vote on the measure this week, but the Democratic-controlled Senate isn’t likely to take it up.
“For some people, time is more valuable than the cash that would be accrued in overtime,” said Rep. Martha Roby, R-Ala., the bill’s chief sponsor. “Why should public-sector employees be given a benefit and the private sector be left out?”
But the idea Republicans promote as “pro-worker” is vigorously opposed by worker advocacy groups, labour unions and most Democrats, who claim it’s really a backdoor way for businesses to skimp on overtime pay.
The White House on Monday issued a veto threat, saying the bill undermines the right to overtime pay and doesn’t offer enough protection for workers who may not want to receive compensatory time off in lieu of overtime pay.
“This is nothing more than an effort to turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse,” said Judith Lichtman, senior adviser to the National Partnership for Women and Families. She contends the measure would open the door for employers to pressure workers into taking compensatory time off instead of overtime pay.
The program was created in the public sector in 1985 to save federal, state and local governments money, not to give workers greater flexibility, Lichtman said. Many workers in federal and state government are unionized or have civil service protections that give them more leverage in dealing with supervisors, she added. Those safeguards don’t always exist in the private sector, where only about 6.6 per cent of employees are union members.
Phil Jones, 29, an emergency medical technician in Santa Clara, Calif., said he’s wary of how the measure would be enforced.
“Any time there’s a law that will keep extra money in an employer’s bank account, they will try to push employees to make that choice,” said Jones, who regularly earns overtime pay. “I know how we get taken advantage of and I think this bill will just let employers take even more advantage of us.”
But at a hearing on the bill last month, Karen DeLoach, a bookkeeper at a Montgomery, Ala., accounting firm, said she liked the idea of swapping overtime pay for comp time so she could travel with her church on its annual mission trip to Nicaragua.
“I would greatly appreciate the option at work to choose between being compensated in dollars or days,” she said.
The GOP plan is an effort to change the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which requires covered employees to receive time-and-a-half pay for every hour over 40 within a work week. The proposal would allow workers to bank up to 160 hours, or four weeks, of comp time per year that could be used to take time off for any reason.
The bill would let an employee decide to cash out comp time at any time, and forbids employers from coercing workers to take comp time instead of cash.
Republicans and business groups have tried to pass the plan in some form since the 1990s. Marc Freedman, executive director of labour law policy for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, insists it’s not about reducing wage costs.
“It’s an alternative to the mandated paid leave approaches that Democrats typically support,” Freedman said. “We believe it’s more appropriate to give employers the choice on whether they want to do this.”
Democrats say the bill provides no guarantee that workers would be able to take the time off when they want. The bill gives employers discretion over whether to grant a specific request to use comp time. Opponents also complain that banking leave time essentially gives employers an interest free loan from workers.
Lichtman said workers would rather get paid sick days, paid family leave, more unpaid family leave and an increase in the minimum wage.
But Alabama congresswoman Roby argues that, in the long run, those ideas would do workers more harm than good.
“The cost of government-mandated benefits is going to be passed off to American workers,” she said, resulting in fewer jobs.
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