by Joe Shea
May 20, 2013
DEVASTATION IN MOORE, OKLA., DEFIES DESCRIPTION
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- Eighty-five years ago, the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) was signed into law by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
This is the law that gave us the eight-hour day and the 40-hour work week.
This is the law that requires employers to pay overtime if their employees work longer than 40 hours in a week.
This is the law that outlawed child labor and gave us the minimum wage.
This is the law that took the blood of unionists and labor activists to achieve, as they were beaten and killed in streets in fighting for more than a half-century for the right to have "eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, and eight hours for what we will."
While this law has been chipped away at over the years, it remains one of the great achievements of FDR's New Deal. But like all pro-worker laws still on the books, it is under attack.
House Republicans introduced a bill last month called the Working Families Flexibility Act, which would let employers offer "comp time" instead of overtime pay for any time worked after 40 hours. It's a bill that was first introduced in 1997, and has been considered and rejected at regular intervals ever since.
But now, with the extra corporate money flooding into pro-business lobbying groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, this bill has a better chance of passage this year than in years past.
Under the Working Families Flexibilty Act, workers could accrue as many as 160 hours of compensatory time.
That sounds good on the surface, if employees actually got the option to use it. The one big catch with this bill is that it doesn't guarantee workers the right to use the comp time they would be owed; you would only be able to use it when your employer allows you to.
An employer can postpone your request for up to a year if letting you have extra time off is deemed to be disruptive to the operations of the employer. After one year, the employer would then be obliged to pay the wage earner for the extra time worked. And if the employer goes bankrupt before you get the money owed you, you're out of luck.
One can see why employers love this bill. Not only would they not have to pay overtime when an employee works more than 40 hours a week, they can indefinitely delay allowing workers to use the comp time they're owed and, in effect, get a loan of the worker's earnings, and the interest on that money, for up to a year.
And if you think pointing this out is being alarmist, there are plenty of documented cases of employers shortchanging employees on overtime and benefits. Wage theft is estimated to cost workers as much as $19 billion a year, and employers know they can get away with it because of lax enforcement of labor laws. Women, minorities and immigrants usually get hit worst.
That's why the FLSA was enacted in 1938. It was designed to not only protect workers and ensure they received a fair wage for a fair day of labor, it was also designed to create more jobs. By creating a financial disincentive to order workers to work beyond 40 hours, it created a financial incentive to avoid overtime pay by hiring more workers.
President Obama says he'll veto the Working Families Flexibility Act if it lands on his desk. That's all well and good, but what's also needed is, first, renewed enforcement of the FSLA to end wage theft, second, an increase in the minimum wage, and third, family-friendly policies such as paid sick time.
If you want to help working families, these steps are a good place to start.
AR's Chief of Correspondents, Randolph T. Holhut, holds an M.P.A .from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and has been an award-winning journalist in New England for more than 30 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.