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Flexibility ... for Employers

The GOP’s Assault on Low-Paid Working Moms

by EILEEN APPELBAUM

Nostalgia for the 90s is apparent in the House Republicans’ latest effort to win over women voters, especially young mothers. Rep. Martha Roby, R-Ala., a mother of two, was tapped to introduce the misleadingly titled “Working Families Flexibility Act of 2013.” The bill is neither new in 2013 – the very same bill was first passed in the House in 1997 – nor does it provide working families with the flexibility they need to meet their children’s needs. Echoing tactics employed in the 1990s, Republicans are attacking Democratic colleagues who do not want to join them in this trip back to the future.

Roby’s claim that her experience as a working mom is behind her support for this legislation fails to note that she, like other professionals, is not actually covered by this bill. It applies only to hourly paid workers – nurse’s aides, check-out clerks, sales women, fast food workers, warehouse workers and others who rely on the 40-hour work week to give them time to spend with their kids and on overtime pay to make ends meet on their meager wages.

The legislation would have employees work unpaid hours beyond the 40-hour workweek and accrue as much as 160 hours of “comp time.” Its major effect would likely be to increase overtime hours for those who don’t want them and reduce pay for those who do.

Workers’ agreement to take comp time rather than pay for overtime hours is supposed to be voluntary. But anyone who has ever held one of these hourly-paid jobs knows that the employer holds all the cards. Refusing an employer’s offer of comp time instead of wages may mean your hours will be cut or that you will be more vulnerable to being laid off in an economic crunch.

The low-paid working moms covered by this legislation know it is not really about giving them more flexibility to choose between comp time and overtime pay. It’s about letting their employers ask them to work more than 40 hours without having to pay them for the extra time.

Republicans are right that working parents need the flexibility to stay home with a child with a raging fever or attend a school conference with their child’s teacher. Unfortunately, this comp time bill fails to address these very real needs. Instead, the bill lets employers decide when workers get to use their comp time. An employee who needs to stay home today with a sick child can be told to take their comp time next week or even later, at a time that is more convenient for the employer.

A better alternative is to pass legislation that allows workers to earn a few paid sick days a year so they can stay home from work for a day or two when they or their children come down with the flu. This would do far more to let working parents care for their kids than the rehashed comp time bill that House Republicans are promoting.

The comp time bill may not benefit workers, but it is certainly a boon for employers. It increases their flexibility in assigning work hours and cuts their costs. A low-paid working mom earning $10 an hour who accrues 160 hours of comp time in place of overtime pay is effectively making an interest-free loan of $1,600 to her employer. That’s a lot to ask of a mother who earns about $20,000 a year. Indeed, it’s a lot to ask any hourly paid worker to lend a month’s pay to their employer.

Legislators who want to stand up for working moms will not easily be misled into thinking that this misguided bill gives working families the flexibility they so badly need.

Eileen Appelbaum is a senior economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research.

This article originally appeared on Economic Intelligence.