House GOP Gives Low-Wage Workers “Flexibility” to Get Exploited

Just in time for Mother’s Day, House Republicans passed a bill that purportedly eases the work-family life conflicts that so many working moms (and dads) struggle with.

The bill is part of a strategy that House Majority Leader Eric Cantor developed for his caucus after the (to them) disappointing results of last year’s elections.

They’ve got an image problem, they think. For some unfathomable reason, a whole lot of voters think the Republican party cares only about the rich.

House Republicans have to show us that they’re “making life work for more Americans and their families,” as a special website Cantor created proclaims.

So he and his colleagues have decided to give working families flexibility, according to the title of the bill. “Flexibility” here refers to the ability to take time off from work without losing pay.

But not, as the proposed Healthy Families Act would. It would require most employers to provide some paid leave for personal or family health-related needs or to get help in cases of domestic violence, stalking or sexual assault.

The Working Families Flexibility Act would instead supposedly allow employees to choose compensatory time instead of overtime pay when they worked more than 40 hours a week.

This means, of course, that it would apply only to workers who get paid by the hour — those at the bottom of the wage scale. They’re the least likely to have paid leave benefits. So the bill might seem a boon to them.

But it isn’t — mainly because these workers wouldn’t really have the choice the bill seems to give them.

Hypothetically, they could choose to continue getting overtime pay instead of opting for comp. time. We have to assume that many would, since $10.00 an hour — the average wage for workers without paid sick leave — is barely enough to lift a family of three above the federal poverty line.

But, as Working America argues, employers would have the upper hand. They could give workers incentives to choose comp. time, e.g., a better shift. They could pressure them.

True, the bill specifically prohibits employers from intimidating, threatening or coercing employees to accept comp. time instead of overtime pay.

But, as the National Women’s Law Center notes, we have more than enough evidence that many employers pay no mind to provisions in our labor laws that are supposed to protect low-wage workers.

Even workers who willingly chose comp. time couldn’t necessarily use it when they needed it.

An employer could legally deny a request by saying it “unduly disrupts … operations” or grant it “within a reasonable period,” rather than for the particular day(s) or hour(s) requested.

So much for taking a day off when your kid is sick — or her school declares a snow day and there’s no one else to care for her.

So much for knowing you can get a few hours off when you need to get legal protection from an abuser.

The Working Families Flexibility Act has another implication for low-wage workers. It really is, as Working America says, a “job killer” because it enables employers to get all needed work done on the cheap.

At this point, as the Fair Labor Standards Act intended, employers have a financial incentive to hire more workers — or offer some part-timers full-time jobs — when they need to get more work done because overtime is half again as costly as straight wage.

Comp. time obviously does away with the incentive.

So here you are, working mothers. You can’t be sure you’ll generally work only eight hours a day and thus have a little time to get to the grocery store, help your kids with their homework, etc.

You can’t be sure you’ll have time off when you need it — or enough time off for a major life event like childbirth because your employer can, at any time, convert all but 80 hours of your comp. time to pay.

You can’t work overtime to make ends meet. And if, like 7.6 million workers, you’ve got a part-time job, though you’d like full-time work, you’re probably stuck with the hours you’ve got.

If House Republicans hadn’t already made “flexibility” a suspect word, this bill would do it.

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