05/07/2013 04:32 pm ET Updated Jul 07, 2013

Loosening the Ties That Bind

As a work-life historian, I feel trapped between depression and hopefulness. Depression, because it's been 20 years since passage of work-life legislation that has significantly improved the lives of workers and their families, the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993. Since then, two decades of endless recycling of important proposals that go nowhere. Hope, because there is nothing explicitly partisan about supporting the most fundamental needs of workers. I know the outcome could be different this time if everyone involved stayed grounded in that reality.

In an attempt to improve their reputation on family-friendly issues, the House GOP is quickly moving the Working Families Flexibility Act of 2013. The legislation's intent is to loosen up the overtime provision of the 75-year-old Fair Labor Standards Act to make it legal for private sector employers to do what is now permitted in the public sector -- allow hourly workers to have a choice between taking the traditional time-and-a-half pay for overtime or taking compensatory time-and-a-half off instead.

The title of this bill implies that the family is the core unit of society, and people who work have, or come from, families. Furthermore, workers have some version of the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Workers need at least three things (not necessarily in this order): a fair wage in exchange for labor expended, time to maintain self and family well-being, and some modicum of workplace flexibility to meet a growing variety of competing demands. How can anyone but Ebenezer Scrooge argue against this logic? The fur only begins to fly around issues of implementation, because the path to implementation is rooted in belief systems -- in this case, beliefs about the nature of work, workers and employers.

A large segment of the work-life community is opposed to the Working Families Flexibility Act because of a belief system that perceives private sector employers to be predatory (this amendment to the FLSA is already in effect in the public sector). Weakening the wage protection of the FLSA would be the equivalent of throwing employees to the wolves, because employers would take advantage of them, ultimately refusing to honor the exchange at the core of this bill.

I don't buy it. I am disappointed by the powerful segments of my own professional community working to defeat this legislation by engaging in what feels to me like a form of stereotyping. Portraying employers in general as opportunistic, seeking only to defraud employees of wages that are rightfully theirs in order to save money doesn't ring true.

Before you dismiss me as hopelessly naive, let me hasten to say that I myself was at the receiving end of precisely this unsavory behavior early in my career. It is because I know from personal experience that there are employers (even with respected names) who will try to game the system that I find an experiment of this kind compelling. Say what? If violating employees' well-being is a business practice, it is likely in operation now, so explicitly regulating such behavior is an effective way to throw a spotlight into dark corners and cleanse the system.

I also find the argument that vast numbers of employees will be duped by predatory employers to be almost comically old-fashioned in today's world of viral connections. The assumption that employees are basically ignorant and easily cheated out of what belongs to them feel s paternalistic and offensive.

I did once work as an hourly employee for an employer who persisted in violating the overtime provision of the FLSA even after Ralph Nader published an expose of the company, so I've been there. Those of us affected contacted the regional labor department and filed for the back wages we were due and were appropriately compensated. There were no legal fees nor onerous process involved, just our determination to make things right. None of us lost our jobs or suffered recrimination. In fact, our employer became a better place to work because we held leadership to a higher standard.

This latter point is key: there is no greater contribution an employee can make than to insist on adherence to legal, ethical behavior. Enforcement begins within, with the recognition and acknowledgement that something is wrong and the will to fix it. Yes, as a work group, we were ignorant of the labor laws; most people who work start out that way, just as most people aren't the benefits, financial and health care experts we all must become in our own interest.

Everyone is accountable for their own career, we are repeatedly told so in our litigious world, keeping one's eye on workplace legalities comes with the territory. Some basic legal guidelines should and will one day be incorporated into all of the diversity, anti-harassment and ethics training that is mandatory for all new employees.

Last but not least, I think that amending important sections of our antiquated labor law is long overdue. Ironically, this is a refrain often repeated in work-life circles. Our education system is hemmed in by a yearly schedule originally dictated by the farming cycles of our ancestors. Our labor laws were cast in stone when the majority of laborers were largely uneducated (predominantly male) factory workers who performed physically demanding, repetitive tasks for which they needed specific types of wage and hour protection. Some of these laws and regulations make it difficult if not illegal to implement some of today's contemporary flexible scheduling options, especially compressed work weeks.

Several years before the founding of Corporate Voices for Working Families, I accompanied several dozen work-life experts to visit Capitol Hill to meet with a variety of senators to discuss our work-life agenda. I will never forget a meeting that a colleague and I had with Sen. Orrin Hatch's senior staffer, who took us by surprise when she exclaimed, "Where have you been all these years?! Hatch has been on the Senate floor at least twice in the past several years, attempting to change parts of the FLSA to provide more flexibility for working families, to no avail. If half dozen corporate spokespersons like you had appeared to testify on behalf of this effort, it could have passed."

This leads me to conclude that the major flaw in the Working Families Flexibility Act of 2013 is that it's only a start to what needs to be done. If the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 is to be retrofitted to 21st century workplace reality, it needs more than a piecemeal fix. So, I speak for a more comprehensive loosening of the ties that bind us. This will require collaboration not only across the aisle but the willingness to step outside of archaic belief systems to look at the larger picture. America's business competitiveness depends on a strong workforce with the best support we can provide. It's time to put politics aside and amend our federal workplace laws to do just that.