No Pay for Overtime

Cass Ballenger is the millionaire owner of a non-union plastics factory in North Carolina. He moonlights as a conservative Republican Congressman from that state. Marianne Hart is an hourly worker at a plastics factory in California. Her second-shift schedule doesn't leave much time for moonlighting.Ballenger and other Congressional Republicans claim they want to help Hart by giving her more flexibility on the job so she can balance the demands of work and family. Hart is dubious."These are the same guys who opposed increasing the minimum wage, who opposed family and medical leave, who opposed national health care, and who backed NAFTA and GATT, right?" she says, during a break from applying labels to Valvoline oil containers. "So now I'm supposed to believe they've suddenly decided to become the champions of the workers-especially women workers. What's wrong with this picture?"That's a question a lot of working people may be asking in the next few months. Ballenger and U.S. Senator John Ashcroft, Republican of Missouri, are invoking the rhetoric of feminism and worker empowerment to advance corporate America's boldest assault on labor rights in decades. If they sell their package of labor-law "reforms" to Congress and the Clinton Administration -- a prospect that is not at all unlikely -- they may succeed in undermining the safeguards that protect people like Marianne Hart.The forty-hour work week is at stake. The Ballenger and Ashcroft bills would gut the part of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 that requires companies to pay employees who work more than forty hours a week one-and-a-half times their hourly salary.Their bills would allow employers to structure schedules with an eye toward getting maximum work at minimum pay out of their employees. Employers could squeeze fifty, sixty, even seventy hours in a week from their workers without paying them overtime. In return, the workers would get the option of taking "compensatory" time off later on. But when they could take that time off would be up to the boss.The length of the average work week for U.S. industrial employees has been rising steadily since 1980, to a recent high last December of almost forty-four hours. When employers have to pay employees for those extra hours at a time-and-a-half rate, it costs them dearly. But if they could "pay" employees with comp time doled out during slow periods, bosses could extend work weeks with little economic liability and virtually no incentive to hire additional employees.Karen Nussbaum, who heads the Working Women's Department of the AFL-CIO, believes the Republican proposals will lead to situations where workers are pressured to accept comp time rather than overtime. She also worries that people working in sweatshops and other low-wage settings will be even worse off."There's a real danger of abuse of power," agrees Senator Paul Wellstone of Minnesota, the ranking Democrat on the Employment and Training Subcommittee of the Senate's Labor and Human Resources Committee, which held hearings on the Ashcroft bill in February.Though you may not have heard about the bill yet, the Republicans are not being shy about pushing it. The House Republican leadership gave the Ballenger bill the coveted H.R. 1 slot this year, making it the first piece of legislation on this year's calendar. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott has publicly stated that passage of the Ashcroft bill is near the top of his agenda as well.The Republicans are packaging their bills cleverly. Ballenger's is entitled the "Working Families Flexibility Act." Ashcroft's is the "Family Friendly Workplace Act.""'Family-friendly' is the term of the moment. It's sexy. So they've just appropriated the term," says Netsy Firestein, director of the California-based Labor Project for Working Families. "The cynicism of this is staggering."A group called the Flexible Employment Compensation & Scheduling (FLECS) Coalition has mounted a sophisticated behind-the-scenes campaign to advance the Ballenger and Ashcroft bills. The campaign does not suffer from a lack of resources.Members of the FLECS coalition include the Boeing Company, Motorola Inc., the Kaiser Permanente health-care conglomerate, the National Association of Manufacturers, the National Council of Chain Restaurants, the National Federation of Independent Businesses, and the National Retail Federation.Even the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions is on board.Much to the surprise of the Republicans, Clinton expressed an openness during last year's campaign to key aspects of the bills -- including the possible use of overtime "payments" in comp time as opposed to the traditional overtime checks.Chris Townsend, Washington representative for the United Electrical Workers union, questions whether the President understands what is at stake."Clinton breathes his own vapors," worries Townsend. "He gets so excited when someone tells him he can be 'family friendly' that he might just get roped into backing some of the most family-unfriendly legislation this century."Townsend, who says the law would be "dynamite in an employer's hand," is dismayed by Clinton's stance. "The White House hasn't provided any clear leadership on this issue. I think that's because they still think they can find a 'compromise,' " says Townsend. "I get a sense that they anticipate some way to get a win-win result out of this. You know, make a few changes, put a labor-management happy face on everything, and then proclaim a great bipartisan compromise to take away our overtime. Because, you know, bipartisanship is the tendency of Republicans to ask for outrageous things and the tendency for Democrats to make outrageous concessions."Within the context of a strictly enforced forty-hour week-or perhaps a shorter thirty-six-hour or even thirty-two-hour week, as several European nations are now considering -- some scholars and union activists say comp time might be an attractive option."Comp time really is good for personal business that people don't have the time to take off for -- things like going to your child's school play. I think that comp time is an avenue we have to be considering. These bills don't do it for us, but I think we have to keep the comp-time option open," says Debbie Schneider of District 925 of the Service Employees International Union. "I don't think the position should be no way, no how. From a union standpoint, we're happy to open this prospect up for our workers in the contracts we negotiate. But from a non-union standpoint, at least as it's been put forward at this point, it's a threat.""Maybe something very radical, like double comp time, would actually be better than what we've got now," suggests Benjamin Kline Hunnicutt, the University of Iowa professor of leisure studies who wrote the groundbreaking 1988 book, Work Without End: Abandoning Shorter Hours for the Right to Work. "But the important question with any of these proposals is: How do you regulate it? How do you ensure that workers really are being compensated for the time they work? As we know, the problem of employees working off the clock is epidemic in this country."Nussbaum, who was the director of the Women's Bureau of the U.S. Department of Labor during Clinton's first term, draws attention to recent studies that have suggested that rule-bending employers currently owe more than $19 billion in unpaid overtime to their employees."I'm not arguing that there aren't some good employers out there who wouldn't abuse this," Nussbaum says. "But we know that there are already millions of workers employed by companies that don't obey labor laws. Can you imagine how bad things would be if the employers knew they had an option that would allow them to legally avoid paying overtime?"Marianne Hart doesn't need to use her imagination."This comp time, flex time, it's a bunch of garbage," she says. "Anybody who's ever worked in a factory knows that. What if I put in all these extra hours of work and then I ask for comp timein the busiest week of the year. Do you think I'm going to get it? Not in my lifetime."Having watched her factory shift hands in repeated corporate buy-outs, Hart also wonders how workers would be "paid" comp time owed them by corporations that sell out or simply close their doors. "If they shut my factory, where do I go to collect my comp time?" she asks.Hart worked in garment-industry sweatshops in New York and Los Angeles before finding work at the plastics factory in Santa Ana, California, eighteen years ago. She fears the worst abuses of the comp-time option will take place in the factory, construction, and service-work settings where many of the employees are immigrants."What's really frightening is if you think about how this would be used in shops with people who have no papers," she says. "As it is, these companies are getting away with abuses that are criminal, but they are at least a little concerned about the wage-and-hour regulations. If you weaken those regulations, you're putting one more spike on the club these bosses use to beat their employees down."

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