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Working Families, Flexibility, and the Eric Cantor of My Dreams

Amy Traub

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor really cares about working families. He favors “common sense legislation to protect workers and make life work for more people” and wants to “help working parents who are juggling responsibilities at home and on the job.” 

That’s why Cantor is throwing his support behind H.R. 1286, the Healthy Families Act, which would follow the lead of San Francisco, New York City, Seattle, Portland OR, Washington D.C., the state of Connecticut and 145 countries around the world that guarantee working people paid time off the job to cope with illness. He wants to raise the minimum wage to help 30 million working Americans make ends meet.  And he’s ready to champion paid family leave, too.

In our dreams.

Back in waking reality, Cantor is pushing a bill that wraps itself in family-friendly rhetoric while actually stripping workers of their ability to get paid for overtime work. The name of the bill, Judith Warner notes in Time Magazine, is downright treacherous: it’s called the Working Families Flexibility Act. As Brenden Timpe has noted, the bill aids employers, not workers. And yes, the House is scheduled to vote on it this week.  

Writing for The Hill, Eileen Applebaum, an economist with the Center for Economic Policy Research details what the comp time bill would really do:

Its major effect would be to hamstring workers – likely increasing overtime hours for those who don’t want them and cutting pay for those who do. The proposed legislation undermines the 40-hour work week that workers have long relied on to give them time to spend with their kids. The flexibility in this comp time bill would have employees working unpaid overtime hours beyond the 40-hour workweek and accruing as many as 160 hours of compensatory time. A low-paid worker making $10 an hour who accrued that much comp time in lieu of overtime pay would effectively give his or her employer an interest-free loan of $1,600 – equal to a month’s pay. That’s a lot to ask of a worker making about $20,000 a year. Indeed, any worker who accrues 160 hours of comp time will in effect have loaned his or her employer a month’s pay. This same arithmetic provides employers with a powerful incentive to increase workers’ overtime hours. Instead of having to pay time-and-a-half wages when an hourly-paid employee works longer than the standard 40-hour work week, the employer incurs no financial cost at the time the extra hours are worked.

As if that weren’t bad enough, the legislation would actually stifle job creation. Instead of hiring more employees as the economy recovers, the bill would give businesses new incentives to pile extra overtime hours onto current employees.

As we’ve documented frequently on this blog, work hours are a major concern for low-wage workers – and the rest of us. Retail workers struggle to get by on unstable schedules with constantly shifting working hours. Forty million Americans, including two out of three low-wage workers in the U.S. don’t have a single paid sick day off work. And too many of us are striving for every extra paid hour we can get as wages have remained flat at a time of record profits. The problems are real and could be addressed by policy, but they need real solutions, not the cynical ploys to deprive workers of the few remaining rights on the job.