MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
We're switching gears now. If you're like most people out there, at some point, you've probably found yourself pulling extra hours or extra shifts and you might have looked forward to getting a little extra something in your paycheck at the end of the week or month.
But now, some Republicans are saying that is so old economy. They say that many workers these days would actually prefer extra time off, so last week, House Republicans used their majority to pass a bill called the Working Family's Flexibility Act of 2013. They say the bill would give workers the flexibility that they need and want, but critics, including most of the Democrats who voted against the bill, say it's just a ploy to pay workers less money.
Here to tell us more about this is NPR's senior business editor, Marilyn Geewax. She wrote about this today for NPR.org. Marilyn, welcome back. Thanks for joining us.
MARILYN GEEWAX, BYLINE: Hi, Michel. Great to be with you.
MARTIN: So, Marilyn, I think a lot of people would be surprised to find out that the law is as strict on this as it is because I think a lot of people have the experience of saying, hey, I know you need me to work this weekend. Give me a couple days off at the end of the month so I can go to my sister's wedding. But you're telling us that it's actually not supposed to work that way.
GEEWAX: That's not what the law says. The Fair Labor Standards Act, which controls how we are supposed to work, has very little to it, actually. It just says that employers have to pay you at least the minimum wage, which is $7.25 an hour now, and you have to work a 40-hour week. If you work more than 40 hours in any one week, you get time and a half pay. There's no mention in there of comp time.
But the reality is that people shift around, certainly, a lot within that one pay period, so for example, it's a Tuesday night. A big project comes in. You've got to get it out of the door. You might stay late and, on Wednesday morning, you knock off - you don't come in 'til noon or two in the afternoon. People do that kind of shifting all the time and that's fine because it all adds up to 40 hours in one week.
But what this bill would do is allow you to stockpile. You could save up to 160 hours and take it much later in the year, so maybe you're working during tax time and you're really busy in late March, you're really busy in early April, but you'd like to take a lot of time off with the kids in August. You could just stockpile your comp time and then take off in August and enjoy your vacation. That's the theory.
MARTIN: And so, technically, unless you have a union contract...
MARTIN: ...that specifically permits this, you're saying that actually is not permitted now under the law.
MARTIN: And the Republicans say, well, that makes no sense. The White House has already issued a veto of that and, as you point out in your piece for NPR.org that's already posted, Democrats voted against this along party lines. Why is there such a strong objection to this?
GEEWAX: Well, they feel that the law, as it is written by the Republicans who passed it in the House last week, that it would not give protections to people about when you could take that comp time. Let's say that, in your vision of things, you would like to work on Saturdays in January and then have a wonderful time in July or August, but your employer might have a very different idea. She or he might force you to take that comp time, you know, maybe next October, when you don't really want it, when the kids are back in school.
So could you have any control over your comp time? Not under the law. It's something that you have to work out informally with your boss. There's also a concern about - what if you work all that time in January and February and you want to take your comp time later in the year and the company goes bankrupt? Do you just lose 160 hours worth of pay? And there's concerns about intimidation, that once you open the door to allowing this kind of flex time, the reality will end up being that your boss kind of pushes you into situations where you end up working 20 hours one week, 60 hours the next week, that your life becomes very erratic and that makes it a lot harder for child care.
MARTIN: Well, forgive me, Marilyn. Call me stupid, but isn't this exactly the kind of thing that could be worked out in committee or these are the kinds of conversations people could have talking about this? You could put stronger language in the bill that says that the time off has to be negotiated or that it has to be taken within a certain timeframe or that employers have to stockpile the money and put it in some sort of instrument to be sure that the money is actually paid if they can't deliver on the time off? Couldn't you work that out?
GEEWAX: Some workers would say that, if we had a smooth, functioning Congress, we ought to be able to work this out. Maybe there are some compromises. For example, there is nothing in the law about paid sick days and a lot of people would really like to be able to take paid sick days off, have some guarantee of some time off for sickness each year. A lot of people would like to see a hike in the minimum wage and have it indexed to inflation so that it would go up when the cost of living goes up.
So what if you put together a bill that gave people, you know, three paid sick days every year and gave a minimum wage increase and you paired it with this comp time thing? Maybe you could put together a package that fits much better with the way people are actually living and give that kind of flexibility and yet incorporate protections, but Congress, you may have noticed, doesn't move all that smoothly these days, so what we have right now is the House passed a bill that unions feel is completely favorable to businesses and the House passes it, but the Senate Democrats say no, so right now, there's this stalemate. It would be interesting to see if they could somehow get together and find a compromise yet.
MARTIN: Before we let you go, Marilyn, have economists weighed in on this? This is the kind of thing where we - again, we hear a lot of high profile business people, people like Sheryl Sandberg, who's gotten so much attention for talking about the way the workplace doesn't really work for the way that families work today. Have economists weighed in on this?
GEEWAX: Yes. I talked with Nariman Behravesh. He's the chief economist with IHS. That's a pretty well-known forecasting firm. And he's really good with economic data on labor and I said, can you just dig into this? What's the deal? Does this affect big businesses? And he said, not really. In a big sense, the thing that is holding back the economy is a skills mismatch, that if you asked employers, what do you really need to have your business improve? Most would say, we need better skilled workers, not so much these hours issues.
But, on the micro-level, on the day-to-day of who - you know, can women make it work to come into the workplace? Can you take care of aging parents and children and make it all come together? For individuals and families, these are important issues. For people who haven't had a minimum wage raise in a couple of years, that's pretty important to them, so all of these issues matter to people, but in terms of the overall growth, not so much.
MARTIN: Marilyn Geewax is a senior business editor for NPR. She was kind enough to join us once again in our studios here in Washington, D.C. Marilyn, thanks for joining us.
GEEWAX: Great to be with you.
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