House approves GOP bill giving employees option of receiving overtime wages or taking extra time off

WASHINGTON—The U.S. House of Representatives approved a Republican-backed bill Wednesday that would give American workers the option of taking paid ``comp time’’ off for working more than 40 hours a week, instead of receiving overtime pay.

The measure is unlikely to pass in the Democrat-controlled Senate and President Obama has threatened a veto, but it carries political value for Republicans who can argue they were attempting to give employers and employees a broader range of compensation options. Republicans — who are seeking support from more women voters — are calling the bill fair and “pro-family.”

``I think this goes beyond party affiliation,’’ said Representative Kevin McCarthy, of California, the majority whip, before the bill passed, 223 to 204 . ``This goes to the core of what America believes and it empowers the individual.”

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But Massachusetts legislators and labor unions say the bill, titled “The Working Families Flexibility Act” offers flexibility in title only. Democrats oppose the law because they say it would allow employers to pressure workers into taking time off insread of overtime wages. They also said it gives employers too much power to decide when an employee can take the additional time off.

“It isn’t flexibility for families when they cannot take the time when they need it,” said Elizabeth Toulan, co-manager of the Massachusetts Paid Leave Coalition, comprising 87 labor groups in the commonwealth that oppose it.

Under the bill, employees working overtime who elect to receive time off as compensation would be awarded 50 percent more time off than the number of overtime hours worked. The choice between compensation time and overtime pay would be made by the employee.

The bill allows employers to prevent employees from taking the time off at particular times if it would “unduly disrupt the operations of the employer.” Toulan said that means a parent seeking to use earned time off to deal with a sick child, for example, could be denied a leave at a particular time by her employer.

“It should be called the Right to Work for Less Act,” said Maine Democratic Congresswoman Chellie Pingree during debate Tuesday.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce defends the measure, rejecting the Democratic charges that it would allow employers to avoid paying overtime wages.

“That does not hold up,” said Marc Freedman, Executive Director of Labor Law Policy at the chamber. “The employer is going to be paying that same amount out at some point.”

But Democrats said workers who choose overtime pay instead of compensation time could be targeted for retaliation by employers.

“If a worker is coerced into taking comp time by his employer, he has little recourse,” said Jared Polis, a Democrat from Colorado who led opposition to the bill during House debate. “This law would also make workers vulnerable to firing or not being hired in the first place if they inform their employer they would prefer to collect overtime instead of comp time.”

Massachusetts Democrat John Tierney said it could also cause businesses to hire fewer workers. If they can save money by steering employees to time off for extra hours, instead of deciding to hire more workers to avoid paying overtime wages.

“Why would we would want to change our policy to incentivize [employers] to not hire more people?” he said.

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