Jewish World Review Sept. 10, 2004 / 24 Elul, 5764

Froma Harrop

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Consumer Reports

How to solve the overtime problem | Americans who suffer from "hurry sickness" don't need to be told what it is. It is the daily struggle to squeeze 65 minutes out of every hour. It means rushing around from daycare to job to supermarket — while agonizing over every moment stuck in traffic. It's a life of multitasking: eating and phoning while driving.

The disease affects men and women, married people and singles, but it hits working mothers the hardest. A woman knows she's got hurry sickness when she regards ironing shirts on the weekend without distractions as a kind of vacation.

Pressure in the workplace costs the nation more than $300 billion a year, according to the American Institute of Stress. This is money spent on stress-related health problems, missed work and efforts by employers to pacify the troops. I don't know whether this number includes the millions spent on aromatherapy candles, machines that make soothing ocean sounds or other calm-down products, but it might as well.

The load seems to get only heavier. Some 62 percent of workers say their job demands have grown over the past six months, according to a survey by Kronos, a human-resources company. American workers now average 350 more hours a year on the job than do their German counterparts. Americans outwork even the Japanese.

All this is a roundabout way of getting into President Bush's campaign promise to let workers take overtime pay in the form of more time, rather than extra cash. As the law now stands, the standard American workweek is 40 hours. Employees must receive time-and-a-half wages for every hour worked over that 40.

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Organized labor opposes Bush's "flextime" proposal, which it sees as a sneaky way to help companies pay their workers less money. Unions do come by their suspicions honestly. There's hardly a cheap-labor idea this administration hasn't embraced. But this concept does have merit.

Actually, flextime has been around many years as a women's issue. But feminists envisioned moving those 40 hours around — - not reducing them. For example, someone might work four 10-hour days, then take a three-day weekend.

Opponents of Bush's plan worry that bosses would bully workers who want the extra money into taking the extra time, instead. Employers could do this by giving all the overtime jobs to people they know will opt for more free time.

But the reality of today's pay structure suggests otherwise. Companies nowadays are perfectly happy to spend extra money on workers who put in overtime. It is cheaper to do that than to hire new people and provide them with health insurance. A worker's health coverage costs the same whether that person puts in a 40-hour or a 65-hour week — and medical premiums are rising far faster than wages. Some economists blame recent slow hiring on employers' fears of having to buy health insurance for new workers. Given this situation, bosses might really prefer that workers take the extra pay, not the extra time.

Many workers who toil long hours can already choose between taking more cash or more time. For nearly a quarter-century, flextime has been available to federal workers. Not a few union contracts offer flextime provisions as a worker benefit. In any case, people aren't complaining that employers have coerced them to take the extra time off and forgo bigger paychecks.

Certainly, there are workers who need or otherwise want that overtime cash. But for so many, especially parents, time has become the most valuable commodity. Note all those educated mothers who are delighted to steam milk at Starbucks, because the coffee chain gives them health coverage for working only a 20-hour week.

France cut its legal workweek from 39 hours to 35 hours. The goal was to encourage French companies to hire more people (rather than work current employees harder). As economic policy, the forced shortening of the workweek failed. But nobody ever argued that it was anti-labor.

So would it be so terrible to let Americans who put in a 45-hour week turn those five hours of overtime into an extra day off, rather than more money? Labor groups fighting this particular Bush proposal should save their strength for better battles.

Froma Harrop is a columnist for The Providence Journal. Comment by clicking here.