Last Thursday House Republicans introduced the misleadingly titled "Working Families Flexibility Act of 2013." Touted by Republicans as a new comp time initiative that will give hourly-paid workers the flexibility to meet family responsibilities, it is neither new nor about giving these workers much needed time off to care for their families. The bill rehashes legislation Republicans passed in the House in 1997, some 16 years ago, and that they introduced again in most subsequent Congresses. Its major effect would be to hamstring workers -- likely increasing overtime hours for those who don't want them and cutting pay for those who do.
The proposed legislation undermines the 40-hour work week that workers have long relied on to give them time to spend with their kids. The flexibility in this comp time bill would have employees working unpaid overtime hours beyond the 40-hour workweek and accruing as many as 160 hours of compensatory time. A low-paid worker making $10 an hour who accrued that much comp time in lieu of overtime pay would effectively give his or her employer an interest-free loan of $1,600 -- equal to a month's pay. That's a lot to ask of a worker making about $20,000 a year. Indeed, any worker who accrues 160 hours of comp time will in effect have loaned his or her employer a month's pay. This same arithmetic provides employers with a powerful incentive to increase workers' overtime hours. Instead of having to pay time-and-a-half wages when an hourly-paid employee works longer than the standard 40-hour work week, the employer incurs no financial cost at the time the extra hours are worked.
This bill is not just a problem for individual workers. The labor market remains a wild card in an economy still struggling to solidify a fragile recovery. With nearly 12 million people counted as unemployed and another 7.6 million part-time workers looking for full-time hours, both Republicans and Democrats in Congress have promised to focus on job creation. This comp time bill does exactly the opposite. Instead of encouraging employers to increase hiring when business picks up and help jump start a more robust recovery, it gives them a strong incentive to increase the overtime hours of current employees instead.
In principle a worker's agreement to receive comp time instead of overtime pay is supposed to be voluntary. But anyone who has worked at a $10 an hour job understands what it is to get an offer from your employer that you can't refuse. Under the provisions of the bill, employers are not supposed to threaten, intimidate or coerce employees into agreeing to comp time in lieu of wages. But employers don't need to resort to such tactics. Everyone understands that in this economy, with unemployment still at recession levels, the employer holds all the cards. Workers who refuse to go along with an employer's request for comp time instead of wages know that their commitment to their employer will be questioned. They fear that in a crunch they will be vulnerable to having their hours cut or being let go. In a weak job market, very few hourly-paid workers can risk that. Without a union to protect their right to refuse to trade overtime pay for comp time, and with no funds in the bill for enforcement of these provisions, the voluntary nature of such agreements is highly suspect.
House majority leader Eric Cantor is right when he says that working parents have a hard time being home when their kids really need them. Parents need the flexibility to take a child who suddenly develops a high fever to the doctor or to attend a meeting with their child's teacher to develop his or her educational plan for the coming school year. The comp time bill House Republicans introduced last Thursday does not address these needs at all. Employees cannot just take comp time when they need it. Rather, the bill lets an employer who receives a request for comp time decide when the employee gets to take it. The employer can even refuse the request and defer it to a later time if, in the employer's view, letting the employee take comp time will "unduly disrupt the operations of the employer."
There are better legislative options available for helping hourly-paid workers deal with family emergencies. The Healthy Families Act would let workers accrue a few paid sick days each year so they can stay home for a day or two if they or a child came down with the flu. A 'small necessities bill' would provide workers with up to 24 hours a year unpaid to attend parent-teacher conferences or meet other urgent family needs. House Republicans are to be commended for focusing attention on working families' need for flexibility. But there are far better alternatives than the Working Families Flexibility Act of 2013 to make flexibility a reality for hourly-paid workers.