Mary is the only wage-earner in her household. She supports her two children and her elderly mother with her hourly job. Sometimes she has to work overtime. Right now Washington is fighting over how to compensate her for that time.
Hourly workers are currently entitled to overtime pay: they must receive 1.5 times their regular hourly rate for any time they work over 40 hours in a week. A federal law, the Fair Labor Standards Act, guarantees that right.
Employers have two legal ways to control wage costs, both of which protect employees. One is to spread work around, so fewer people have to work overtime and people working less than full-time get the chance to work 40 hours a week. The other is to hire more people so the employer doesn’t have to make any employees work more than 40 hours in a week.
That was part of the intent of the Fair Labor Standards Act: it creates an incentive for employers to hire more workers, which reduces unemployment, and it creates a disincentive to prevent forcing employees to work too many hours.
Let’s talk dollars and cents. Say I make $10 an hour working for Company, and last week my supervisor required me to work 50 hours. That means Company owes me $15 for each of the extra 10 hours I worked last week: 150 bucks. Nice.
You work for Cheapo Co. across the road. You also worked 50 hours last week at your $10 an hour job. Cheapo doesn’t want to pay 150 bucks, and the Republicans are on their side, what with Cheapo being a job creator and all.
The Republicans have created a proposal to change the Fair Labor Standards Act so that Cheapo doesn’t have to pay you. It’s called the “Working Families Flexibility Act” (WFFA, H.R. 1406 in Congress), and it would give employers the choice of compensating employees for overtime either with overtime pay or with comp time.
They are branding WFFA as a gift to working moms, rolling out an ad campaign on mommy blogs promising them more choice in setting their schedule and more freedom to change it for unexpected emergencies, like a child’s sudden illness. Mommies, the Republicans are saying, if you have more time, you can manage that work/life balance problem we keep hearing about.
If only it were that easy. First let’s follow the money: comp time means you don’t get your 150 bucks overtime pay. Instead you get 10 free hours – unpaid. If you didn’t have that comp time, you would work those ten hours at $10 per hour and earn $100 – on top of the $150 you would get for the overtime. Add it up and you can see that by requiring overtime pay instead of comp time, the current law nets you $250. The Republicans would let Cheapo keep your $250 in its own pocket.
Also, because the comp time is not overtime and therefore is worth only $100, it compensates you less than the overtime pay, which would be $150.
The problems with WFFA go beyond money. It says that a worker gets overtime pay unless she and the boss agree on comp time instead. Do you think the managers at Cheapo, who don’t want to compensate that worker at all, will look kindly on her if they ask her to take comp time and she refuses and insists on overtime pay? I think that she is so out of there. Bye-bye, job.
In reality, scuzzy employers like Cheapo will have the power to force comp time on workers who really need the overtime pay. They will feel free to force those workers to take the comp time when it is convenient for the company; the rosy picture the Republicans paint of a comp time bank that employees can dip into for doctor appointments or any other time they need it is likely to be the unusual arrangement, not the norm.
If I sound overly harsh on employers, it is because I spent years as a lawyer suing them for stealing people’s pay. They just wouldn’t pay for overtime. They would monkey with the hours records and then say that people didn’t work any overtime. They would retaliate against employees who complained, often by firing them.
If Congress really wants to help Mary out with some family flexibility, they should make it up to her alone whether she wants comp time, make it up to her when she takes it, and hire thousands more people in the Department of Labor to make sure the Cheapos out there obey those parts of the law. Otherwise, the WFFA, or H.R. 1406, is a gift to scuzzy employers and one more kick in the teeth for the working class.
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