April 16 2013
Carrie L. Lukas
Given all the talk about helping women achieve a work-life balance and calls for greater flexibility at work, one might assume that a proposal to give hourly employees new option for compensation would be greeted with universal applause. Yet some are tarring this proposal—the recently introduced Working Families Flexibility Act of 2013—as opening the door for evil bosses to exploit their workers. That criticism seems far-fetched and shouldn't be allowed to derail common sense changes to make our workplaces a little more flexible.
Here’s what the proposal does: It would amend the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 so that rather than requiring hourly employees to receive 150% of their pay for each hour worked in excess of 40 hours per week, employees would have the option to instead receive a time-and-a-half off from work for each hour of over-time.
Critics say that this new flexibility would really be used as a way to short workers. As Eileen Appelbaum writes in The Hill:
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.
Yet such coercion would be illegal under this provision, as it is illegal today. It’s unclear to me why Appelbaum thinks that this provision alone would invite this kind of abuse. The minority of employers who would illegally exploit their workers as she describes are likely already exploiting them. That’s a problem, but not one that is particular to this proposal.
And of course the vast majority of employers don’t abuse their employees. That means that this provision would benefit most hourly employees by giving them new options for how they can be compensated. Many workers, in fact, would prefer to have more paid time off rather than more take-home pay. Why shouldn’t they be given this option?
Americans want a more flexible work world that gives workers more options for how to balance work and family life. The antiquated rules in the Fair Labor Standard Act (created during the Great Depression) are the enemy of such flexibility. Proposals like the Working Families Act are a step in the right direction in loosening restrictions to create new options for workers and businesses.