AUSTIN, Texas -- Boy, there is no shortage of creatively terrible ideas from the Republican Party these days. Those folks are just full of notions about how to make people's lives worse -- one horrible idea after another bursting out like popcorn -- and all of them with these sickeningly cute names attached to them.
Consider the Family Time and Workplace Flexibility Act (Senate version) and the Family Time Flexibility Act (House version). The Bush administration is leading the charge with proposed new rules that will erode the 40-hour workweek and affect more than 80 million workers now protected by the Fair Labor Standards Act.
To hear the Republicans tell it, you'd think these were family-friendly bills, something like Clinton's Family Leave Act, designed to help you balance the difficult combined demands of work and family. With such a smarm of butter over their visages do the Republicans go on about the joys of "flexibility" and "freedom of choice" that you would have to read the bills for maybe 30 seconds before figuring out they're about repealing the 40-hour workweek and ending overtime.
As The American Prospect magazine notes, when Republicans talk about "flexibility," it means letting business do whatever it wants without standards, mandates or worker and consumer rights. Ever since FDR's New Deal, working overtime gets you time-and-a-half in money, which has the happy effect of holding the work week down to 40 hours -- or at least preventing it from ballooning grossly.
The proposed Bush rules, which the two Republican bills codify and expand, would:
- Exclude previously protected workers who were entitled to overtime by reclassifying them as managers. Companies are already using this ploy where they can get away with it. Say you're frying burgers on the night shift at McDonald's, making overtime, and suddenly -- congratulations -- you're the assistant night manager, with no raise and no overtime.
- Eliminate certain middle-income workers from overtime protections by adding an income limit, above which workers no longer qualify for overtime. You like that? You make too much to earn overtime.
- Remove overtime protection from large numbers of workers in aerospace, defense, health care, high tech and other industries.
Pay attention, this one is coming right out of your paycheck.
Big Bidness is lobbying hard on these bills. If you work overtime to pay your bills, look out. The trick is, employers get to substitute comp time for overtime, and the employers get the right to decide when -- or even if -- a worker gets to take his or her comp time. The legislation provides no meaningful protection against employers requiring workers to take time off instead of cash and no protection against employers assigning overtime only to workers who agree to take time instead of cash. Everybody gets screwed on this one, except the bosses. Isn't it lovely?
The proposed rules changes and the Republican bills provide a strong financial incentive for employers to lengthen the workweek, on top of an already staggering load. By 1999, in one decade, the average work year had expanded by 184 hours, according to Kevin Phillips' book "Wealth and Democracy."
He writes, "The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the typical American works 350 hours more per year than the typical European, the equivalent of nine work weeks."
The bills give employers a new right to delay paying any wages for overtime work for as long as 13 months. According to an analysis by the Economic Policy Institute, under the new bills an employee who works overtime hours in a given week might not receive any pay or time off for that work until more than a year later, at the employer's discretion.
"Without receiving interest or security, the employees in essence lend their overtime pay to the employers in the hope of getting back some time later as paid time off," the report states. "Employees' overtime compensation is put at risk of loss in the event of business failure and closure, bankruptcy or fraud. Furthermore, employees get no guarantee of time off when they want or need it."
The EPI explains why Big Bidness loves these bills: "A company with 200,000 FLSA-covered employees might get 160 free hours at $7 an hour from each of them (160 hours is the maximum allowed under the bills). That's the equivalent of $224 million that the company wouldn't have to pay its workers for up to a year after the worker has earned it. Considering that, under normal circumstances, the employer might have to pay 6 percent interest for a commercial loan of this magnitude, it could save $13 million by relying on comp time to 'borrow' from its employees instead."
The slick marketing and smoke on this one are a wonder to behold. We're being told that private sector workers will get the same "benefit" of comp time as public employees. Wow, keen, except the government has no profit motive for pushing comp time instead of overtime. Boy, does this stink.
Molly Ivins is a best-selling author and columnist who writes about politics, Texas and other bizarre happenings.