In a perfect gift for mothers just short of Mother's Day, House Republicans have once again introduced legislation with a charming title and a potentially devastating impact for working women and families. According to the bill's sponsors, the "Working Families Flexibility Act," or H.R. 1406, would give employees the "freedom" to determine work schedules and time off. In reality, this bill would provide more work and less pay.
Working families need and deserve greater flexibility in meeting family and work needs. However, the "Working Families Flexibility Act," on the floor of the House of Representatives this week, doesn't do anything to promote greater flexibility for working families. This legislation, proposed by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Representative Martha Roby, would allow employers to pay their workers nothing extra for overtime work, other than the potentially empty promise of compensatory time -- "comp time" -- that can only be used at the employer's discretion. H.R. 1406, cloaked in the positive language of "choice," is really just another attempt by Republicans to get rid of paid overtime.
Backers of the bill are proudly calling this legislation "family friendly" and touting its benefits for working women. But we fear they are underestimating women's ability to know a falsehood when they hear one. The supporters of this bill claim that employers need more "flexibility" to manage work schedules and give workers time off. But employers already have the flexibility to schedule any kind of flexible work hours and to give their employees paid or unpaid leave whenever they want. By giving employers the flexibility not to pay overtime, this "comp time" bill is just another Republican gimmick that would ultimately erode hourly workers' ability to both pay their bills and care for their families.
At least 63 million private sector workers are required to be paid time-and-a-half for hours worked beyond the 40-hour workweek. Under H.R. 1406, workers who work overtime would never see a bump in their paycheck and would earn less take-home pay. The "choice" to take time off sounds nice, but as many working parents and people of color know too well, calling something a "choice" assumes there are viable options. For many working families, taking home less pay at the end of the day means less money to cover rent, education costs, medical bills and other living expenses. The "choice" to take unpaid time off is not a choice at all.
The 40-hour work week, as we know it, came from the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) of 1938. To ensure that workers can spend more time away from work, the FLSA discourages employers from demanding overtime by making overtime more expensive. By contrast, H.R. 1406 would encourage employers to demand longer hours because overtime is made less expensive. That's because employers would be able to pay workers nothing at all for overtime work at the time the work is performed and could schedule comp time off at no extra cost to them (for example, during less busy periods when coworkers can pick up the slack). So, when employees request comp time, they essentially become lenders to employers. For example, a worker earning $12 an hour and banking the maximum amount of hours (160) would be giving an interest-free loan of $1,920 to his or her employer.
At a time when workers are already working harder for less, those who rely on overtime to make ends meet could face even more financial challenges. The kind of support that working families are looking for would be available by strengthening their ability to collectively bargain on the job for higher wages, safer workplaces, better health care and paid time off options. Working families deserve better than H.R. 1406.