Minnesota congressman's bill hurts workers

  • Article by: MIKE OBERMUELLER
  • Updated: May 8, 2013 - 8:32 PM

It's employers who would benefit most from the flexibility it purports to provide.

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U.S Rep. John Kline, R-Minn.

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Counterpoint

U.S. Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., professes to support working families as a cosponsor of the Working Families Flexibility Act of 2013 (“Hardworking Minnesotans need options,” May 3). On its face, this legislation looks innocent enough, but a closer look explains why this anti-middle-class idea has gone nowhere since it was first introduced in 1996.

The fact is, this bill would hurt working families by deferring worker wage payments, reducing wages and job opportunities, and increasing workplace hostility.

Under the bill, an employer can provide compensatory time (or “comp time”) instead of paying overtime wages for an employee who works overtime hours. If the employee does not claim his or her comp time — that is, take time off from work — the employer can hold the worker’s wages until the end of the year. In other words, the employee’s pay is essentially deferred for up to a year. What employer would not want an interest-free loan like this?

The bill also discourages the hiring of new workers. What employer would hire new personnel to get the job done, when it can require mandatory overtime from its existing employees? Under this bill, existing employees will likely have to work longer hours, giving them less time with their families, not more.

Employees theoretically have the right to refuse comp time in lieu of overtime wages. Put yourself in that situation. You and a fellow employee are looking to advance in the company. The employer offers overtime to each of you. You agree to the overtime, but request your pay in cash; your fellow employee agrees to comp time. Which employee do you think is likely to advance in the company? Accepting comp time instead of wages would hardly be voluntary. Rather, it would increase the adversarial environment in a company, both between employer and employee and also among employees.

But, Kline argues, employees who take their comp time will be able to spend more time with their families at their leisure. Not so. Employers have up to 30 days to honor a comp time request. That means that if a single mom and her employer cannot come to an agreement on her schedule, she might have to work 60 hours this week, when she’s available, but also 60 hours next week, when she’d rather be off spending time with her kids. There is no guarantee that a worker gets any “comp time” when he or she needs or wants time off.

The bill also would incentivize employers to cut back on paid vacation and holiday pay. Why give two days off at Thanksgiving when you can just pressure workers to take their comp time? Why pay two weeks of vacation? Isn’t one enough when your employees can just save and use their comp time?

This bill failed when it was introduced in 1996, 1998, 2003 and 2005. In 2003, when George W. Bush was president, William Whittaker, specialist in labor economics for the Congressional Research Service, wrote about this proposed legislation: “For persons employed in a white collar semiprofessional environment, the workplace may be pleasant and the labor-management relationship cooperative and congenial. For the low-wage poorly educated worker in a poultry processing plant or garment factory, the realities may be somewhat different and not so very far removed from the 19th century.”

There are alternative bills that provide ample work flexibility to employees, including the Healthy Families Act, Paycheck Fairness Act, Fair Minimum Wage Act, and paid family and medical leave insurance. Kline should leave the 19th century behind and support bills that Minnesota workers need.

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Mike Obermueller, of Eagan, is a former member of the Minnesota House and a Democratic candidate for the U.S. House in Minnesota’s Second District.

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