Rep. Eric Cantor | AP Photo
When right-wing Republicans like House Majority Leader Eric Cantor begins talking up worker “rights,” it’s time to open your eyes and check your pockets. Because that’s about as likely as the Ku Klux Klan beating a drum for affirmative action.
In this case it’s all about overtime pay. Since 1938, the Fair Labor Standards Act has required, for most hourly employees, time-and-a-half pay for each hour beyond 40 that are worked in a week.
Cantor, R-Virginia, and his cohorts last week introduced something called the “Working Families Flexibility Act of 2013″ with a slick sales pitch: private industry workers, they argue, should be allowed to take compensatory time off rather than extra pay, an option many government workers already enjoy.
The legislation would give hourly employees the ability to earn comp time (at a rate of 1.5 hours for every hour worked beyond 40 in a week) and take that as paid time off down the road. Each employee would be able to earn no more than 160 hours of comp time a year.
But workers would not necessarily have the option to use comp time anytime they wished; rather, they could use it if and when the employer agrees. The bill would force a cash out at the end of the year for any unused comp time. And it prohibits employers from coercing, threatening or intimidating workers into accruing comp time in lieu of taking overtime pay, or of forcing them to take accrued paid time off when the employer wishes.
From the Associated Press:
Republicans in Congress are pushing legislation that would extend that option to the private sector. They say that would bring more flexibility to the workplace and help workers better balance family and career.
The push is part of a broader Republican agenda undertaken by . . . Cantor, R-Va., to expand the party’s political appeal to working families. The House is expected to vote on the measure this week, but the Democratic-controlled Senate isn’t likely to take it up.
“For some people, time is more valuable than the cash that would be accrued in overtime,” said Rep. Martha Roby, R-Ala., the bill’s chief sponsor. “Why should public-sector employees be given a benefit and the private sector be left out?”
Why indeed? What could be wrong with this? Eileen Appelbaum, senior economist for the Center for Economic and Policy Research, has counted the ways:
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.
What she’s saying is there are ways to influence workers short of coercion, threats and intimidation. In practical terms, Walmart has honed this to a science — that’s why they’ve never been unionized. They influence their employees to vote against a union.
Second, banking comp time amounts to an interest-free loan by the worker to the employer. That’s potentially a huge benefit to an employer. It’s probably not a big deal if the employer has a practice of making interest-free loans to his or her employees. Some mom-and-pops probably do, but have you heard of many big employers with formal programs like that?
Third, let’s get real about comp time in the public sector. It was not adopted as a benefit for employees. It was instituted to save the employer (government agencies) money. That’s the prime motivation to extend it to private employers as well — which is why Republicans have been trying to enact this since 1997. It will save companies money.
The big difference is, government workers are far more likely to have union and/or civil service protections to enforce their comp-time rights and prevent abuses. Only 6.6 percent of private-industry workers are unionized.
Fourth, consider the effects this will have on employment. Employers will work their existing employees longer, knowing they can avoid paying OT while controlling when employees can use earned comp time (at slow times, or otherwise at the employer’s convenience). That could easily be cheaper than hiring additional workers to work those extra hours, especially if benefits are involved in the job.
I might be for this proposal if employees had the option of taking earned comp time anytime they wanted. But they don’t the way it’s set up now, and the sponsors would never permit that, which leaves employers holding most of the cards. “Working families flexibility” my ass. The name is Orwellian.
This bill could easily leave employees working more for less pay, while cutting payroll expenses for companies and depressing job growth.
Bottom line: it’s a step backwards rather than forward.