Quick Hit Ellyn Fortino Tuesday May 7th, 2013, 7:46pm

Advocates For Women’s, Workers' Rights Say Congress Must Reject The Working Families Flexibility Act

More than 150 women’s, worker and civil rights organizations sent a letter to members of the U.S. House of Representatives Monday urging them to reject the Working Families Flexibility Act of 2013.

The measure, H.R. 1406, sponsored by U.S. Rep. Martha Roby (R, AL-2), is expected to go up for a full House vote Wednesday.

Opponents of the bill, which has 168 Republican cosponsors, say it is an empty promise that would do more harm than good for working families.

“The very fact that this is entitled the Working Families Flexibility Act is a joke,” U.S. Rep. Donna Edwards, a Democrat from Maryland, said on a conference call with reporters Monday. “It’s a lot of flexibility for employers and zero flexibility for working families. In fact, you could call it the ‘working families to death act,’ because that’s what would result.”

Under the proposed bill, private employers would provide an hour-and-a-half in compensatory time, or comp time, off to their employees for every overtime hour earned beyond the 40-hour work week.

Employers would provide comp time only if it’s allowed via a collective bargaining agreement or an agreement between the employer and employee.

Employees would accrue comp time, but would not be allowed to save more than 160 hours. An employer would have to provide monetary compensation for any unused comp time at the end of each year. 

Supporters of the bill said comp time provides more employee flexibility, because they can choose when they want to take paid time off rather than receiving time-and-a-half overtime wages.

But Emily Twarog, assistant professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s School of Labor and Employment Relations, said the bill is assuming there is an equal balance of power in an employer and employee relationship.

“It’s assuming that an employee can easily go to their boss and say, ‘OK, well I’m going to take that comp time now, and I’ll see you tomorrow,” she said. “If you’re concerned about being fired at work, which most workers, frankly, are, then you’re not going to feel comfortable taking out that comp time.”

Under the bill, workers would need to put in a request to their employer to use comp time, but an employer could deny the time off if it would “unduly disrupt the operations of the employer.”

“What employers are trying to do here, and it’s not a great secret, is that they want to get out of paying overtime to employees and work them more than 40 hours a week and then tell them you can take comp time that’s available to you,” said Edwards.

But, she added, the workers would probably not be able to take comp time off at their leisure.

It’s highly unlikely, Twarog said, that an hourly worker who is schedule for an eight-hour shift, for example, could decide to leave after five hours because he or she has saved comp time.

“You can’t just walk off your shift at five hours,” she said. “Somebody’s got to fill that three-hour gap.”

Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner, executive director and CEO of MomsRising, said the bill would not guarantee a mother who works extra hours could cash in that time if her daughter or son came down with a flu, for example.

She also raised concerns about whether or not an expectant mother would be able to use her accrued time as parental leave when her baby is born.

“Virtually all employees need time off at some point or another,” Rowe-Finkbeiner said. “People need time away from work to care for their loved ones and to care for themselves, but this proposal, despite its great name, doesn’t guarantee that.”

Under the proposal, workers who prefer overtime pay to comp time might actually see their hours and their potential to accrue overtime pay diminished, Rowe-Finkbeiner added. She said employers might choose to cut costs by giving shifts and extra hours to their other workers who accept comp time in lieu of overtime pay.

Twarog also added that she was “highly suspicious” of the 160-hour limit on accrued comp time.

“When someone has 80 hours of comp time stored up, are they going to take two weeks off,” she asked. “I don’t see that happening.”

A similar bill was passed in the House in 1997, and it’s "problematic" that it’s being reintroduced again, said Twarog.

“It’s going to take up some air time, and it demonstrates that there’s not a real desire to improve working conditions for American workers, because what American workers really need is paid sick days, paid family leave,” she said.

There is no Working Families Flexibility Act companion bill pending in the Senate, speakers on Monday’s conference call said.

Twarog said she doubted the bill would even garner enough votes for approval in the Senate if it were introduced. But if it did pass in the House and Senate, she added that President Barack Obama would most likely not sign it.

The Obama administration's Office of Management and Budget released a statement (PDF) Monday that reads, "If the President were presented with this legislation in its current form, his senior advisors would recommend that he veto the bill."

A better law for hourly workers, instead of the Working Families Flexibility Act, would be one where employers apply overtime hours toward paid sick days, Twarog said.

Monday’s letter from the 150-plus groups called on members of Congress to focus their energy on adopting policies such as the Healthy Families Act, which would allow more workers to earn paid sick days, and the Paycheck Fairness Act that looks to close the gender-wage gap.

They also said Congress should focus on boosting the minimum wage via the Fair Minimum Wage Act, and also called for expansion of the Family and Medical Leave Act, among policies. 

“We ought to be looking at the economic security of families and adopting policies that provide that kind of economic security,” said U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, a Democrat from Connecticut.

American workers should not have to choose between caring for a family member or losing their job or wages, she stressed.

On Monday, DeLauro asked the Rules Committee to focus on other pending legislation that would address some of the problems facing working families, but the effort was to no avail.

"We applaud Representative Rosa DeLauro (D – Conn.) for suggesting the Committee vote on the Healthy Families Act as an alternative to H.R. 1406," said Debra L. Ness, president of the National Partnership for Women & Families in a statement Monday evening. "The Rules Committee rejected her amendment, but the Healthy Families Act would make real the false promises made by proponents of H.R. 1406 by guaranteeing workers the right to earn the paid time off they need, to use when they need it. 

DeLauro called the Working Families Flexibility Act a “sham.”

“We’re going to call it out for what it is, and it will cause more harm than good, and we’re going to reject it,” she warned.

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