The “Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing” Act

Two weeks ago, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to pass the “Working Families Flexibility Act.”   With a nice name like that, you might think this was a proposal to allow hourly workers more flexibility, such as to work from home, take guaranteed paid sick leave, or even (gasp!) paid maternity and paternity leave like 163 other countries do.

But you’d be wrong.  This bill is a wolf in sheep’s clothing.  If enacted, it would dismantle key overtime provisions in the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), a federal law that has protected American workers for three-quarters of a century.  Under the FLSA, private employers must pay their hourly workers time-and-a-half for any overtime hours they work (that is, any hours over 40 hours/week).  The FLSA strikes a fair balance – employers can require you to work long overtime hours, but they have to compensate you for it. 


The “Working Families” bill would change all that.  It would allow private-sector employers to “offer” employees comp time rather than paying them time-and-a-half for overtime.  (This is already the law for government workers).  Theoretically, the “Working Families” bill lets workers choose whether they want comp-time in lieu of overtime pay.  But in reality, the bill will likely mean fewer hours and less pay for low-wage workers.    


As commentators have pointed out, the law does nothing to prevent employers from simply giving overtime hours to the employees who will accept comp time, rather than to those who want overtime pay.  And the law provides little recourse for employees who fear losing their jobs if they don’t agree to accept comp time.  What’s more, the bill states that employees have to use their comp time at the employer’s convenience.  Such a deal. 


Don’t judge this book by its cover – the so-called ”Working Families Flexibility Act” does increase “flexibility,” but not for “working families.” Instead, it gives more flexibility to employers – that is, the flexibility to require overtime but not pay workers for it. 


Luckily, there are two bright spots in all of this. First, if the bill does make it to President Obama’s desk, he has promised to veto it. And second, even if the bill did somehow become law, it would do nothing to alterMaine state law, which like the current federal law requires time-and-a-half pay for any overtime hours.  So for the time being, overtime pay is probably safe, but only until the next deceptively titled bill comes along…

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