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Overtime Laws Could Be Loosened Under GOP Comp-Time Proposal

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WASHINGTON -- House Republicans are planning to introduce legislation that could loosen the nation's 75-year-old law governing overtime in the workplace, allowing employers and workers to choose taking compensatory time off rather than the traditional time-and-a-half pay.

Cast by Republicans as a reform toward workplace flexibility, the proposal would amend the Fair Labor Standards Act, a bedrock labor law of the New Deal era, to ostensibly give workers more options in how to use their accrued overtime. Democrats and labor leaders, however, will likely oppose the measure on the grounds that it could weaken protections of the traditional 40-hour work week.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) first hinted at the measure in early February, when he delivered a speech at the American Enterprise Institute that was seen as part of the GOP's wider rebranding efforts toward a more caring party. Cantor noted that many public employees are already allowed to convert earned overtime into comp time, and he argued that extending that option to the private sector would be a boon to working people.

"If you’re a working parent, you know there’s hardly ever enough time at home to be with the kids,” Cantor said. “Federal laws dating back to the 1930s make it harder for parents who hold hourly jobs to balance the demands of work and home. An hourly employee cannot convert previous overtime into future comp-time or flex-time."

On Tuesday, Rep. Martha Roby (R-Ala.) told USA Today that she plans to introduce such a bill next week, saying it could "provide some relief in this economy to working families." The language of the bill is not public yet.

Such proposals aren't entirely new. The GOP pushed a similar, failed effort in 2003, called the Family Time Flexibility Act, which would have given private-sector workers the voluntary option of taking comp time rather than overtime pay, limited to 160 hours per year. That bill expressly forbid employers from pressuring workers into taking comp time rather than pay, but opponents of such measures warn that such coercion would still happen.

Federal and state labor officials already have a hard time enforcing a rather clear-cut overtime law, and workers routinely claim in court that they've been denied the time-and-a-half pay that they've earned. Given the power dynamic between bosses and employees, the use of comp time could become something less than voluntary in practice in certain workplaces.

Vicki Shabo of the National Partnership for Women and Families said that if the proposal is like previous ones, it would be "misguided."

"Based on those proposals, I think it's pretty clear to us that this is a bad deal for working women and families," Shabo said. "What it's doing is taking money out of the pockets of workers who need it ... It's really only providing the promise of time to people who've already put in extra time away from families."

The time-and-a-half clause of the Fair Labor Standards Act serves as the primary governor of the 40-hour work week. Employers usually don't push employees to work beyond 40 hours because it becomes expensive for the employer. But as Ross Eisenbrey of the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute has noted of comp-time proposals, allowing workplaces to convert overtime to comp time could undermine this disincentive. Depending on the language of the bill, employers might also get to decide when an employee uses that comp time.

"It is nothing more than a scheme to allow employers to avoid paying for overtime, a scheme that will result in longer hours, lower incomes, and less predictable workweeks for American workers," Eisenbrey wrote of the 2003 GOP bill.

Roby told USA Today that many workers would prefer having time off to extra pay.

"Comp time is comp time, and you can use it for whatever you want," she said. "Think about going to your child's play, not just a doctor's appointment. You don't want to take vacation time for that."

Brian Newell, a spokesman for Republicans on the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, said the idea behind the legislation is to provide more flexibility and choices to workers.

"For years public-sector workers have been able to earn comp time for overtime hours worked and it’s only fair private-sector workers have the same opportunity," Newell said in an email. "Republicans are eager to move forward with a commonsense proposal that will help Americans balance the needs of family and work."

The bill likely won't become public until next week, when the committee is expected to take it up. Aaron Albright, a spokesman for committee Democrats, said they haven't seen the proposal yet but have opposed previous comp-time measures.

"Instead of finding new ways to pay workers less," Albright said, "Congress should be examining ways to guarantee paid family and sick leave for working families."

This story has been updated with comment from Newell.

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