Commentary | Inequality and Poverty

Phony ‘flextime’

This article first appeared in The Monterey Countey Herald on October 1, 2004.

Taking away overtime pay rights from potentially millions of Americans was just the first pitch. Now the Bush administration is launching another pre-emptive strike on American workplace standards. This time, it is promoting proposed legislation in Congress it claims would give ‘flextime’ and ‘comp time’ to employees. One big problem — the bills being promoted by the president’s campaign have virtually nothing to do with true ‘flextime,’ nor would they deliver more time off.

Flextime is a work scheduling arrangement by which employees are granted some discretion to set their own daily starting and finishing times of the work day, usually around core hours when all employees must be present. This flexibility is invaluable to employees with children in school or day care, for example.

But one of the bills in Congress proposes a ’50-30′ biweekly ‘workweek.’ This would allow employers to schedule their hourly workers for up to 50 hours in a given week and not owe time-and-a-half pay for any of the 10 hours of overtime work, provided the same workers are scheduled for no more than 30 hours in the following week. Not only would this exacerbate the current trend of most workers’ wages falling behind inflation but it is also more likely to introduce unwelcome irregularity to employees’ lives. The proposed bill does not grant employees any power to determine which additional days or hours they will work or have off, or even when they start or stop their workday.

The ‘flex’ in this proposal all flows to the employer.

Both Senate and House versions of proposed legislation come with sheep’s clothing — seemingly innocuous provisions that would allow private sector employers to substitute compensatory time off, or comp time, for overtime pay. Unfortunately, any cost-conscious employer will soon discover it can limit labor costs and pump up profit statements by shifting overtime work to those willing to accept time off instead of pay. Worse, employers will be legally entitled to force employees to use comp time credits at times they don’t wish to.

Worse still, the proposed bills allow employers to veto an employee’s use of accumulated comp time credits if they feel it would somehow interfere with business operations. A worker will be out of luck if the year ends and the employer has not yet found a ‘convenient’ time for the worker to use his accumulated hours. Making work schedules more employee-friendly is a goal that policy-makers should pursue. They could ensure that overtime is limited in both length and frequency and is entirely voluntary (except, of course, in emergency situations) by granting workers the right to refuse overtime and to receive some reasonable advance notice.

Some options are available that would encourage flexible daily work scheduling. Bush’s version isn’t one of them.