House backs flexible overtime for private sector employees

The House on Wednesday approved legislation to give private sector workers the option of using overtime for paid time off from work instead of overtime wages.

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The Working Families Flexibility Act, H.R. 1406, was approved in a 223-204 vote. Only three Democrats voted for the bill, and just eight Republicans voted against it.

Republicans brought up the bill because, under current law, government workers at all levels are already allowed to exchange overtime worked for more paid time off. But the law does not give private sector workers this same privilege.

The legislation changes the law to give private sector workers the same option, subject to a voluntary agreement between companies and workers.

"We know there are a lot of workers who would seize the opportunity to earn a few extra dollars," said House Education & the Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline (R-Minn.) in defense of the bill. "But others may welcome additional paid time off to spend with loved ones. Shouldn't workers choose what's best for their families?"

Democrats have opposed the bill, and argue it would undermine the 40-hour workweek. Several Democrats said during debate that the bill would give companies the power to assign overtime to people who are willing to do it without pay.

"Yes, there will be those who will volunteer who can afford to do comp time," Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said. "Others will not be, so they will not be able to earn overtime because the employer will invariably — not because they're bad people — but will invariably go to the person that will in fact do it for free."

Others argued that the bill as written gives companies additional power by giving them a say over when employees take their time off. The bill says comp time could be taken at a time that does not unduly disrupt the workplace.

"So the notion that somehow a person has that choice to accumulate comp time and then be able to use it for a family vacation or a family emergency, in fact does not meet the actual plain language of the bill that is before us today," Rep. Joe Courtney (D-Conn.) said.

Rep. Martha Roby (R-Ala.), who sponsored the bill, has said for weeks that the bill contains protections that ensure companies do not use the change to take advantage of workers in these ways. She stressed in the debate that the trade of overtime for comp time can only made in cooperation with workers and companies.

"Despite the claims of my colleagues on the other side, no worker could ever be forced to take time off," she said.

One measure of the Democrats' opposition to the bill was seen midway through the debate, when several Democrats lined up to insert statements into the Congressional Record. House rules require these statements to be made in a neutral manner, but many embellished their request by calling the bill "shameful," "thoughtless," "scandalous," "vile," "appalling," among several other names.

Democrats said it would hurt working mothers, and ended each brief statement with a sarcastic, "Happy Mother's Day."

Democrats continued making these statements even after the GOP presiding officer said that the Democrats' debate time would be reduced as a penalty for flouting the rules.

After they were done, Kline dabbled in sarcasm himself by thanking Democrats for their presentation. "It was an excellent show. It expanded the lexicon," he said.

The legislation is part of the House GOP leadership's campaign to "make life work" for families. Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) outlined the proposal in a speech in February, and on Wednesday said the law should give the same flexibility to private sector workers that government workers have.

"For the past 30 years, government employees have been afforded this luxury," Cantor said. "It's time for all of us to present all parents in America with this option."

But given the Democratic opposition, it seems most likely that the House-passed bill will not be considered at all in the Democratic Senate. And for many of the reasons mentioned by House Democrats, President Obama has said he would veto the bill.

Before passing the bill, the House easily approved a bipartisan amendment that would require the Government Accountability Office to report to Congress on the implementation of the law.