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Commentary By Diana Furchtgott-Roth

The Government Could Gift This One Thing to Mothers If It Wanted To

Economics, Culture Employment, Children & Family

Compensatory time off instead of overtime pay would help mothers, and fathers, balance work-life demands

Mother’s Day is Sunday, and with it the question of how to balance work and family.

The House of Representatives has taken a major step toward work-life balance for mothers and fathers by passing the Working Families Flexibility Act of 2017 on May 2. The bill allows companies to offer compensatory time off instead of overtime pay to employees who work more than 40 hours a week.

Under the bill, sponsored by Republican Rep. Martha Roby of Alabama, employees would receive one and a half hours of comp time for each overtime hour that they worked. This would enable them to have an extra bank of occasional time to use with their families, or for vacations, or even paid maternity leave — up to an accumulation of 160 hours.

This would be especially valuable to working parents, who often feel squeezed between work and family.

“Society should have no interest in denying workers the use of comp time. It is neither unsafe nor unhealthy.”

The Senate version, sponsored by Republican Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, needs to clear committee before going to the floor.

Reasonable people might ask why workers cannot just receive the overtime pay and then take unpaid leave later. But many jobs do not allow unpaid leave. If you are an auto worker in a General Motors plant, then you have to be paid overtime and you cannot just take unpaid leave whenever you like. You have to take vacation, and that must be scheduled in advance.

Some hourly jobs do not allow unpaid leave either. Say you’re working as a garage attendant and you’re paid hourly. You can’t just say that you’re not showing up on Monday because you worked longer over the weekend.

Upper-income salaried workers and federal government employees can already receive comp time. But although we are well into the 21st century, the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 requires hourly workers and some salaried workers to be paid overtime for extra hours worked, rather than being permitted to take time off. The Working Families Flexibility Act would repair that inequity.

Republicans have been trying to pass this bill since 1995, when it was first proposed by the late Rep. Cass Ballenger, a Republican from North Carolina. It passed the House in an amended form in July 1996.

Opponents of comp time say the choice of time off or pay would lead to employers pressuring workers to take comp time, in order to cut costs. But the bill requires a written agreement about whether compensation will be in hours or dollars, and two further specific protections to protect worker exploitation.

Two protections

First, if employees change their minds and decide they want pay instead of time off, the employer has to give them their pay within 30 days. It allows workers to switch comp-time balances for pay at any time.

Second, firms have to give monetary compensation for unused comp-time balances no later than one month after the end of the calendar year. If workers decide to choose comp time in the hope of taking a summer vacation, but do not get around to it, they automatically get their overtime cash at the end of the year.

Further, with 4.4% unemployment, employers have to attract workers, and flexible work hours, including comp time, is one way to do it.

The law would benefit all hourly workers, as well as salaried workers below a certain income threshold, and upper-income workers who must receive overtime, such as sales or computer employees.

Outdated labor law

The Fair Labor Standards Act was passed with the best of intentions, but the 1938 Congress did not foresee the entry of women into the workforce, single parenthood and the ensuing complicated work-life tensions of 2017. Today 70% of mothers with children under 18 are in the labor force, compared with 47% in 1975 and 17% in 1948, the first published data available.

Comp time is particularly valuable for working mothers. Many workers have two weeks of vacation a year, plus federal holidays. When workers choose comp time, they are taking something that they value more than money.

Society should have no interest in denying workers the use of comp time. It is neither unsafe nor unhealthy. On the contrary, the potential for harm is greater without the choice of comp time. Overtime is time away from rest, family and precious hours of leisure. For some, the extra pay more than compensates. But for others, only hours freed can reimburse the hours lost.

This Mother’s Day, let’s consider allowing all workers to choose comp time, not only the ones at the upper end of the income scale. There’s no better present for Mom.

This piece originally appeared on WSJ's MarketWatch


Diana Furchtgott-Roth is a senior fellow and director of Economics21. She also served on the transition team for President Donald Trump. Follow her on Twitter here.

This piece originally appeared in WSJ's MarketWatch