A bill just introduced in the US House of Representatives could effectively wipe out the concept of the ridged 40-hour work week by giving private-sector employers the option of offering their employees compensatory time off instead of overtime pay.
The Working Families Flexibility Act (H.R. 1406), would amend the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) by adding a provision giving employers the option of offering compensatory time and their employees the option of accepting it in lieu of overtime pay. Like overtime pay, the compensatory time would accrue at time-and-a-half. In other words, 10 hours of work above 40 hours in a week would be worth 15 hours of compensatory time off.
Public-sector employees have had the compensatory time off option since 1985, but the FLSA still requires private-sector employees to pay cash for overtime work.
The bill would prohibit employees from accumulating more than 160 hours of compensatory time and requires employers to pay employees monetary compensation for any unused compensatory time at the end of the year.
The bill's sponsor Rep. Martha Roby (R-Alabama) argues that the option of taking compensatory time off would give workers greater flexibility in scheduling their lives.
But, if this sounds too good to be true for employees, it is, says Judith Lichtman, senior adviser for the National Partnership for Women & Families, who says the bill is "based on smoke and mirrors."
In her written testimony to the House Subcommittee on Workforce Protection, Lichtman stated that while the bill seems to offer convenient time off, it is in fact a pay cut with no guarantee of time off when needed.
"The worker flexibility offered by H.R. 1406 is nothing more than a mirage," stated Lichtman. "That's because this proposal gives the employer, not the employee, the 'flexibility' to decide when and even if comp time can be used."
Indeed, the bill gives employers the authority to deny an employee's request to use compensatory time if doing so would "unduly disrupt" company operations.
Litchman also contends the bill could place employees who refuse to accept time off instead of overtime at risk of retaliation. "An employee who does not accept comp time could find himself or herself penalized with fewer hours, non-preferred shifts and loss of overtime work," she told the committee.
However, the bill contains a provision prohibiting employers from intimidating, threatening, or coercing employees in order to interfere with the employee's right to request or refuse compensatory time off in lieu of monetary overtime.
Bills identical to the Working Families Flexibility Act have been introduced several times since the late 1990s. "Fortunately for the nation's workers," says Litchman, it has not become law."
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