The Great Mother's Day Prank

The "Family Time Flexibility Act" favors corporations, not families.

| May 08, 2003

You're working harder and longer than ever. Your kids demand your attention. Your household suffers from benign neglect.

If only you had some time flexibility, you could get that leaking toilet fixed. You could take your son to the dentist and talk with your daughter's teacher. You could visit your ailing parent.

Not to worry. The Republicans -- famous for their support of labor and family-friendly policies -- have come up with a solution. It's called the "Family Time Flexibility Act" and the House leadership, seeking to woo women voters, has promised to pass it by Mother's Day as a gift to America's working women.

You can almost hear Republican operatives laughing behind closed doors. "These women workers, they're so exhausted from doing two jobs -- one at work and one at home -- they'll never realize what we're doing. They'll jump at anything that promises more flexibility."

And they're probably right. Most of us crave flexible work hours. "I used to work for a company that gave 'comp' time when I worked overtime, and I loved it," says Laurel Eby of San Jose.

But this bill, with its seductive illusion of flexibility, would end one of the fundamental rights enacted by the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 -- a 40-hour workweek and time-and-a-half pay for overtime.

Under the Family Time Flexibility Act, an employer can decide to reimburse you for overtime with compensatory (comp) time, rather than with pay. So, if you work eight extra hours, your boss can give you 12 hours of comp time -- which you can use or cash out sometime in the next 13 months, at the employer's convenience.

So what's wrong with such flexibility?

Plenty. "This bill," says John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO, "is about giving more flexibility to employers -- not employees." Employers, in short, get to decide when you work overtime and when you get to use your banked time. Jan Howe, a union member, agrees with Sweeney. She's "seen how nasty my employer can be in intimidating my co-workers to work overtime."

The Economic Policy Institute -- a labor-supported think-tank -- opposes the legislation because many low-wage, hourly workers simply cannot live without the extra money they earn working overtime. They also fear employers will discriminate against employees who insist on overtime pay rather than comp time. For these low-wage workers, says Rep. John F. Tierney (D-Mass.), the result will be "less time for their families and less income to support those families."

Rep. George Miller (D-Ca.), who voted against the bill, says that "employees are in effect being asked to give a no-interest loan to their employer." If a company goes belly-up -- which happened to more than 500,000 businesses last year -- you might have banked a month of comp time, but you may never get it.

Arlie Hochschild, professor of sociology at UC Berkeley and author of The Second Shift and The Time Bind, views this legislation as "a fig leaf covering corporate interests." The boss, she says, "will have more incentive to increase overtime and the worker will get an IOU."

Not surprisingly, those who support the legislation include the National Association of Manufacturers and other business groups who stand to gain greater flexibility and profit from the bill's passage.

With so many mothers in the workforce, balancing work and family life has clearly emerged as the labor dilemma of the 21st century. But we need to find solutions that protect both employers and employees from exploitation.

Flexible schedules are already available, if employers want to offer them. Unfortunately, only 28.8 percent of workers have the choice to vary their work hours.

Congress, moreover, could increase the minimum wage, limit mandatory overtime, provide paid family leave, encourage flex-time, and shorten the standard workweek -- all of which would help workers achieve a saner balance between their work and family lives.

Meanwhile, Ellen Bravo, director of 9-5, the National Association of Working Women, reminds us that the whole point of the 40-hour workweek was to make it more difficult for employers to force workers to take extra time away from their families.

So don't be fooled by this Republican-led effort to end the 40-hour workweek or you'll wind up working more and earning less.

This article originally appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle.

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