Photographer: Jeff Kowalsky/Bloomberg

Republicans Try Again to Let Bosses Offer Comp for Overtime

  • House to take up measure that could face turbulence in Senate
  • Would let companies offer comp time in lieu of overtime pay

House Republicans took up Tuesday a bill to allow companies to offer employees compensatory time rather than time-and-a-half pay, an overhaul of New Deal-era employment law that supporters say would enhance workers’ scheduling options but opponents warn would erode protections.

"This bill would ensure workers have less time, less flexibility, and less money," Maryland Democratic Representative Anthony Brown said in a floor speech opposing the proposal.

Republicans’ control of the White House and both chambers of Congress gives the comp time proposal -- which passed the House in 1996, 1997 and 2013, only to fail to get through the Senate -- its best chance in years of actually becoming law. It was approved April 26 by the House Committee on Education and the Workforce on a party-line vote.

The legislation is likely to again face hurdles in the Senate. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican whose office declined to comment, hasn’t indicated whether he plans to take up the measure.

If he does, it’s likely to face opposition from Democrats. Republicans, who hold 52 Senate seats, would need the support of eight Democrats to overcome a filibuster if all Republicans support the measure. Otherwise, the bill would stall once again in the Senate.

“Senator Alexander hopes to see the bill taken up by the Senate when time allows,” Taylor Haulsee, a spokesman for Senator Lamar Alexander, a Tennessee Republican and chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, said in an email Thursday.

Under current law, eligible private-sector employees must be paid time-and-a-half for any hours beyond 40 that they work in a week. Under the Republican proposal, companies and individual employees could agree that their overtime work would instead be rewarded with comp time.

Sunset Provision

In lieu of getting paid any wages right away for their extra hours in a week, employees would instead accrue an hour and a half in a comp time bank for each extra hour they worked, which they could then request to use at a future date as paid time off. The House bill has a “sunset” provision that would make it expire five years after enactment unless a future law extended it.

Supporters say the proposal would help workers take care of children or aging parents without forfeiting their pay.

"If you asked any working parent, they’d tell you how valuable their time is," said the bill’s sponsor, Representative Martha Roby, an Alabama Republican. "Congress, of course, cannot legislate another hour in the day. But we can give men and women more choice and flexibility in how they choose to use their time.”

Republicans say the bill has plenty of worker protections, like a ban on coercing employees into choosing comp time; a guarantee that they be paid for any unused comp time within thirteen months after accruing it; and a requirement that workers who asked to utilize their comp time get to do so “within a reasonable period after making the request if the use of the compensatory time does not unduly disrupt the operations of the employer.”

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That doesn’t satisfy opponents, who see the bill as a Trojan horse that undermines existing protections for workers without creating any actual new ones. 

“It’s a complete and total fraud,” said Ross Eisenbrey, vice president of the left-of-center Economic Policy Institute.

Nothing under current law prevents companies from just offering paid sick days or family leave to their workers, opponents of the proposal say -- or short of that, from granting requests for unpaid leave. Because workers right now could take paid overtime and then use the money to make up for unpaid leave taken later, they argue, there’s no benefit to them in letting them instead work unpaid overtime and then make up for it by taking paid leave. 

“It forces the employee to give the employer a loan -- unsecured, interest-free -- of the overtime pay, in order to have the hope -- not a guarantee, but the hope -- of having some time off later on,” said Eisenbrey. Either way, he said, employers still get to decide whether to actually grant their workers’ requests for time off.

The difference, Democrats say, is that if Republicans get their way, companies will get away with not paying overtime by pressuring workers to choose comp time or by only giving excess hours to those staff who’ve done so.

Wage Theft

Given the prevalence of wage-and-hour violations and Trump’s proposal to slash the Department of Labor’s budget, workers who are illegally coerced out of time-and-a-half would be unlikely to get made whole, said Ellen Bravo, founder of the coalition Family Values at Work. 

“It plays into the hands of bad actors who are already engaging in wage theft – it gives them another tool," Bravo said.

Such fears are unfounded, said Representative Bradley Byrne, an Alabama Republican who chairs the Workplace Protections subcommittee of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce. 

"It’s a very bad business decision to go out there and try to intimidate or coerce an employee in this environment," he said.

Byrne said the GOP bill offers a better solution to work-life balance issues than Democratic proposals to force companies to provide paid time off. 

"Any time you’re doing something that’s voluntary, it’s going to work better for everybody involved," he said.

The White House, which didn’t respond to inquiries about the bill, would probably approve the bill if it does make it out of the Senate, said economist Diana Furchtgott-Roth, who served on Trump’s labor transition team.

— With assistance by Laura Litvan

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