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1/08/2005

New Attack on Workers’ Overtime Pay

The Bush administration is preparing another attack on working families’ paychecks as the 109th Congress convenes in Washington, D.C. The administration, with the backing of its corporate allies and Republican congressional leaders, will push for new legislation to allow employers to substitute compensatory time off for time-and-a-half overtime pay. They also are likely to push a so-called “flex-time” bill to replace the 40-hour workweek with an 80-hour, two-week pay period.

Both proposals would force employees to work longer hours for less pay, unions and other workers’ advocates say.

Last year, President George W. Bush won his fight to cut overtime pay protections under Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) rules, stripping rights to overtime pay from millions of workers.

Specific legislation has yet to be introduced, but the Bush White House proposals are expected to closely mirror legislation working families and their allies defeated in past congressional sessions. The FLSA created a 40-hour workweek to spread employment more broadly, but the only enforcement mechanism is the requirement employers pay a cash premium for overtime work.

By removing the overtime pay requirement, comp time legislation would make it cheaper for employers to demand mandatory overtime, undermining the FLSA’s only incentive against excessive hours.

It is nothing more than a scheme to allow employers to avoid paying for overtime, a scheme that will result in longer hours, lower incomes and less predictable workweeks for American workers,” said Ross Eisenbrey, vice president of the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), in an analysis of the past Congress’ comp time legislation.

While backers claim comp time arrangements would be voluntary between workers and management, past bills contained no strong protections against employer coercion. By giving employers a cost advantage to use comp time instead of premium overtime, employers are likely to subtly—or not so subtly—induce workers to accept the comp time.

The 40-Hour Week Under Attack

The push to kill the 40-hour week and replace it with an 80-hour, two-week, work period opens the door for employers to demand longer hours for less pay. For example, an employee who worked 50 hours in one week and 30 hours in the next would no longer be entitled to 10 hours of premium pay.

In a 2004 analysis of so-called “flex-time,” Pennsylvania State University economics professor Lonnie Golden said, “The ‘flex’ in this proposal all flows to the employer.”

He wrote that such legislation would allow employers to schedule hourly workers up to 50 hours in a given week and not owe time-and-a-half pay for any of the 10 hours of overtime work, provided the same workers are scheduled for no more than 30 hours in the following week.

“Not only would this exacerbate the current trend of most workers’ wages falling behind inflation, but it is also more likely to introduce unwelcome irregularity to employees’ lives. The proposed bill does not grant employees any power to determine which additional days or hours they will work or have off or even when they start or stop their workday,” Golden said.

Last August, when Bush stepped up his campaign to let employers substitute comp time for overtime pay and kill the 40-hour week, AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney said Bush’s plan “is really about giving America’s corporations the flexibility to cheat their workers out of overtime pay after forty hours a week.”

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