August 8, 2003

Commentary

Without overtime pay, workers will be cheated

By Linda Chavez-Thompson

Congress is trying to pull a fast one on your right to overtime pay.

Members want to cut overtime protection for workers, but they are doing so in a sneaky way. They claim to want to give workers more flexibility with their schedules. The only flexible thing about their plan is that it would stretch your workweek beyond 40 hours without your boss having to pay you an extra dime. And for those of you who rely on overtime pay, your wallet may be in for some stretching, too.

A Republican-led bill in the U.S. House would take away mandatory overtime pay and allow employers to give you compensatory time off (“comp time”) instead.

The version in the U.S. Senate would take away overtime pay and the 40-hour workweek. Under the Senate version, your boss could ask you to work 60 hours one week and 20 the next --but until you worked more than 80 hours in two weeks, you wouldn’t qualify for overtime.

Republicans argue that the law has to be changed so that soccer moms and dads can have extra hours with the kids and that parents need to change the law to get more time off.

Don’t believe it for a minute.

The so-called Family Time Flexibility Act does not provide any more work-schedule flexibility for workers than they already have under current law. Under this legislation, all the flexibility and all the important decision-making rights would go to your boss.

Employers would still choose when workers can take their time off. You may have the hours in the bank, but your boss still has ultimate control over when you can use them. There’s no legal guarantee that you can use your comp time for a medical emergency, get off early to see the holiday pageant at school or take a family vacation.

In fact, it is far more likely that employers would encourage workers to use comp time when business is slow instead of when you need the time. That way your boss gets to work you overtime during busy times at basically no cost.

For those of you who want or need to work overtime, hand on to your wallet. Cost-conscious bosses could give extra hours to workers who accept free comp time instead of workers who want to be paid in cash. So workers who could count on overtime pay in the past can now count on a pay cut in the future.

Millions of workers depend on cash overtime to supplement their incomes. In March 2003, overtime pay accounted for 13 percent of the weekly paycheck of the average manufacturing worker, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Without this supplemental income, many workers would not be able to ay their housing, health care or food bills. They might be forced to take a second job just to earn the extra income they need to provide for their families.

Despite the shattering pain caused to employees at Enron and WorldCom, the Republican plan does nothing to compensate workers if their company goes bankrupt before they use their comp time. Last year, 550,000 business closed their doors. If their employees had banked comp time, most likely they’d be out of luck and out of cash.

The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 guaranteed workers in America the right to a 40-hour workweek and a two-day weekend. It makes no sense to turn back the clock and deny overtime pay to those who work more than 40 hours a week.

Linda Chavez-Thompson is the executive vice president of the AFL-CIO. She can be reached at pmproj@progressive.org.

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