Economy

Republicans Propose Weakening Overtime Laws, Call It ‘Family Friendly’

CREDIT: AP Photo / J. Scott Applewhite

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), NSA defender, is in a bit of a quandary and may have to endorse legislation limiting the agency's reach.

On Tuesday, Republican senators reintroduced a bill intended to address the country’s lack of paid family leave.

The bill, the Family Friendly and Workplace Flexibility Act, would let employers give their workers an option to put their earned overtime hours toward paid family leave, rather than getting paid time-and-a-half for them. Currently, private sector employees can only be paid for extra time on the clock, not use the hours to accrue time off. House Republicans passed a very similar proposal last year.

While Republicans tout it as a way to give employees more flexibility, it could weaken already weak rules that require workers to be paid extra for working extra hours, thus ensuring that workweeks don’t grow out of control and employees are compensated fairly. Currently, 21.7 million people are exempt from overtime pay because of the loopholes in the law and likely wouldn’t be able to take advantage of the Republican proposal. Meanwhile, opponents have argued that while workers would in theory opt voluntarily to get time off instead of the extra pay, employers would end up with the power to coerce their workers to choose time off.

Employers already often cheat workers out of overtime. They had to pay their workers more than $136 million in back wages last year after denying them overtime pay. But that’s an undercount of how widespread the practice is. It’s estimated that employers rob employees of more than $50 billion in wages every year by denying overtime and other labor law violations. The vast majority doesn’t get reported, but even those who do report wage theft often don’t recover any money.

Republicans point out that public sector employees are already able to put overtime hours toward time off rather than getting extra pay. But that change was instituted to cut government costs, not to give workers flexibility. The idea is also an old one. Republicans introduced similar legislation in 1996, 1997, and 2003.

The Republican plan came less than a week after Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) re-introduced the Family and Medical Insurance Leave (FAMILY) Act, which would create a national paid leave program like the ones in place in California, New Jersey, and Rhode Island. The FAMILY Act would create an insurance program that employees would pay into with payroll contributions of about two-tenths of one percent of their wages. They could then earn 66 percent of their typical monthly wages up to a certain cap for 12 paid weeks of time off for the arrival of a new child. It would cover all workers regardless of their companies’ size or whether they are self-employed.

Such a plan wouldn’t be directly financed by either employers or the federal government. And employers in the states that have these programs have come around in favor of them. The vast majority of businesses in California said it had a minimal or positive impact, while those in New Jersey said paid leave hasn’t hurt their bottom lines and had a positive impact on their work.

Republicans have offered some other ideas for how to help parents who struggle to balance the demands of raising children with the demands of work. Last year Senate Republicans unveiled a package of bills, a key piece of which was the Working Parents Home Office Act, which would give parents the ability to deduct home office costs from their taxes if they have a baby crib in it.