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Yes, President Bush, Governments Should Help Families
An open letter from Ellen Bravo of 9to5, the National Association of Working Women
Released August 27, 2004

I dont mind when someone states a view different from mine. You think tax cuts for the rich will solve the jobs problem, I dont fair enough. What really gets my goat is when people claim to share my values but in fact want to undermine them.

Take President Bushs latest effort to appeal to working women. On the eleventh anniversary of the Family and Medical Leave Act a bill his father twice vetoed and which hes weakened Mr. Bush gave a speech about families need for more time together. This world is changing, the President said, acknowledging that most mothers of young children are in the paid labor force. We need to make sure government changes with the times.

Time! Flexibility! Change! Yes, I say, these are all concerns of mine and the organization of low-wage women I represent, 9to5. But the flextime President Bush has in mind couldnt be farther from the kind of change working families desperately need.

Simply put, what Mr. Bush is calling for is flexibility for employers. His proposal -- a re-cycled idea that couldnt muster enough support for a vote in the House last year -- would enable employees to choose to take comp time instead of overtime pay when they work more than 40 hours a week.

Heres the problem: you get to spend more time with your family only after youve been forced to spend more time away from your family.

The Fair Labor Standards Act was enacted nearly 70 years ago to discourage employers from demanding overtime by charging a premium. Bushs proposal removes that disincentive. By making it cheaper for employers to demand overtime, comp time would lead to more mandatory overtime, longer hours, and more unpredictable work schedules for workers.

And please note, the employer, not the employee, has final say over when you can take the time youd get instead of extra pay. Right now many 9to5 members have comp time and complain that theyre allowed to take off only when work is slow times that usually dont coincide with school vacation or family get-togethers.

President Bush says government ought to permit employers to tell an employee, If you want some time off and work different hours, youre allowed to do so. Guess what - the FLSA already allows employers to give workers time off whenever they please, and to arrange flexible work schedules. Someone who earns enough through a decent wage or overtime can simply bank the money and pay herself for unpaid hours or days time an employer is certainly allowed to grant. The problem is, too many simply wont.

Who would suffer under this proposal? Many 9to5 members depend on cash overtime to make ends meet and pay their bills. Theyre afraid theyd be cut out of overtime if they didnt select the comp time option. Others are concerned about the time squeeze theyre already under. They fear being forced to work more overtime as a result of Mr. Bushs vision.

Government ought to be helping families, President Bush declared. I agree. Here are a few items for starters: Raise the minimum wage so workers dont have to put in extra hours to pay the rent. Eliminate mandatory overtime. Expand family leave to more workers and for more reasons. Encourage the states to experiment with forms of wage replacement during leave. Require a minimum number of paid sick days, so workers dont get fired for having a sick kid.

But if you want to make overtime cheaper for employers, please, just say so. Dont push it in the name of helping families.

Ellen Bravo is director of 9to5, National Association of Working Women, www.9to5.org. She testified against the Family Time Flexibility Act in March 2003 before the Subcommittee on Worker Protection of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce.

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