Jewish World Review
http://www.jewishworldreview.com | (KRT) The Family Time Flexibility Act sounds like a Democratic initiative pushed by unions and workers' rights groups, yet it is anything but.
The bill, slated for a House vote Thursday, faces strenuous opposition from the AFL-CIO and the National Association of Working Women, among others. Its premise is simple, but its aim is being fiercely debated.
The bill would give private-sector employees the option of receiving paid time off, or comp time, in lieu of overtime pay. Employees eligible for overtime now can only be paid in time-and-a-half wages.
If the bill becomes law, an employee working 60 hours in one week could choose to be paid for 20 hours at time-and-a-half, or receive that time-and-a-half in hours off, that is, 30 hours of paid leave.
Proponents say the law would give workers some much-needed flexibility in their harried schedules, and that it's a perk public-sector employees have enjoyed for more than a decade. Also, employers aren't required to offer the benefit and employees are not required to use it.
"It's a little change in the law that would give employers another benefit to offer their employees," said Randel Johnson, vice president for labor policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
"It's a small bill that's become disproportionately attacked as gutting overtime protections, which it doesn't do," Johnson said, describing opposition to the bill as an "amazing tempest in a teapot."
The fate of HR1119, sponsored by Rep. Judy Biggert, R-Ill., at vote time is unclear. Some Republicans have criticized the proposal, at least one because of a potential for employer abuse.
The Senate recently introduced a similar bill, likely to generate even more of a tempest: In its current version, it proposes to change the calculation of overtime so that an employee would have to exceed 80 hours in two weeks to qualify, rather than the current rule of 40 hours in one week.
Opponents contend the House bill is a boon to employers, not workers, because the change makes overtime work cheaper. If it passes, they say, employers will favor those workers who opt for the time off, rather than the wages. Those employees will be offered more overtime hours, they say.
"Our members are desperate for more time and more flexibility, and this would give them neither," said Ellen Bravo, director of 9to5, National Association of Working Women. "Flexibility requires control, and all control here rests with the employer. It's the employer who chooses who gets to work overtime."
One Republican, Rep. John McHugh, R-N.Y., has been quoted as saying he would vote against the bill because of concerns that some employers would abuse the benefit by favoring employees who take comp time.
Another contentious issue is how much leeway employers have to delay a worker's request for time off. The bill states that employers must grant time off unless it would "unduly disrupt" business operations.
Bravo expects some employers to exploit that rule. "We have members who are told, `Oh, it's too busy now,'" Bravo said. "When their kids are in school and no one else is off, they're told, take your time now," she said, adding that good employers currently offer flexible schedules already.
One of the linchpins in the argument against the bill is it would make overtime cheaper for employers, essentially overturning the original intention of overtime pay, mandated in the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, to be a disincentive for employers pushing their workers too hard.
On the face of it, the cost would be equal: Pay workers overtime, or give them time-and-a-half off paid.
But Bravo said employers would benefit because they pay the worker in time, not money. If an employee takes 15 hours of comp time in lieu of wages, then "15 hours of overtime pay never shows up on the payroll ledger, and workers B and C do a little extra work" while worker A takes time off, she said.
The employer pays for the hours the employee is not there, but never pays more than the regular hourly wage, Bravo said. And with comp time likely taken in slow times, the loss in productivity due to the absent worker is lessened.
Overtime pay was created "because people were working excessive hours," Bravo said. "They put in time-and-a-half as a disincentive. This takes away that disincentive by saying you can work (employees) and not have to pay them any more money, just give them more time when things are slower for you."
Still, the bill's proponents argue that employers who go to the effort of adopting the benefit will be loath to restrict workers' paid leave to slow times.
"Employers who put this on the books and don't allow employees to take the time, if they say it's too busy right now, those are going to be employees who are not invested in the organization, that's going to hurt the bottom line," said Frank Scanlan, spokesman for the Society for Human Resource Management.
"If you have happy employees, you're going to have productive employees. That's good for the organization and good for the bottom line," he said.
Supporters also point out that workers have recourse to complain to the Labor Department or take the employer to court in the event of any abuse.
Also, the bill expires, or sunsets, after five years. "That gives Congress the opportunity, after five years to look at the law and see how it has worked in practice," said Kevin Smith, spokesman for the House Education and Workforce Committee. "If there are problems, we can address the problems. If it works, we can renew it."
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