Workplace flexibility is a popular perk (as it should be!) at many corporate offices these days—but it’s much harder to come by for hourly workers.
A bill introduced in the House of Representatives, the Working Families Flexibility Act, aims to change that—but labor experts say the measure could have the unintended consequence of hurting working families instead of helping them.
“This is really a wolf in sheep’s clothing that sounds like a good thing, but actually could undermine families’ economic security and opportunities in a way that’s really damaging,” says Emily Martin, general counsel and vice president for workplace justice at the National Women’s Law Center.
The proposed legislation would allow hourly workers, who currently receive time-and-a-half pay when they work overtime hours, to bank paid time off instead of cash. For every hour of overtime worked, they would receive an hour-and-a-half of paid time off in the future.
At first glance, it seems like a dream for busy working mothers. Clock in five hours of overtime, and then take all of Friday off to attend your daughter’s field trip.
Not quite. As Martin explains, the act’s big drawback is that it gives employers a lot of control over when comp time is used. “If an employer says it would unduly disrupt business for you to take the time off now, the employee wouldn’t be able to take it off,” she explains.
So if a mom needs to use her banked leave during a hectic workweek, her boss could simply tell her, ‘Sorry, not now.’ Plus, employees have to ask to take the comp time off in advance, so it’s not really helpful in emergency situations—say, for taking care of a sick kid or aging parent.
Labor advocates also worry that employers would pressure workers to opt for time off instead of cash, since it would be cheaper than paying overtime wages. “If you are an employee in a low-wage job without a lot of bargaining power, and desperate to stay in your employer’s good graces, it’s really difficult to push back if an employer makes it really clear that the employer’s preference is that you take the comp time,” Martin points out.
The bill does give employees the right to cash out their banked overtime, if they change their mind. However, it doesn’t provide any guarantees that they will receive payment if their company declares bankruptcy or goes out of business.
Previous versions of the bill have been passed by the House, but it hasn’t been able to make its way successfully through the Senate. The bill was introduced by Rep. Martha Roby, a Republican lawmaker from Alabama, and it may receive a warmer welcome this year in the GOP-controlled Senate.
Advocates like Martin say that companies already have plenty of ways they can enhance workplace flexibility. Under existing laws, employers can provide their employees with paid sick days, change work start and end times to meet workers’ needs, create split shifts (giving employees’ breaks in the middle of the day) and allow telecommuting. Many of the companies on the Working Mother Best 100 Companies list provide these perks. However, they aren’t legally required by Congress to do so—and that’s one big way lawmakers could help working families.
“Congress could require employers to provide the right to paid earned sick days,” Martin says. “Paid family and medical leave may be required for serious medical conditions. They could require that employers give employees their work schedules in advance and disincentivize last-minute changes. Those are all things that would make a real difference for working parents. Those are the things that people really need.”