The Working Families Flexibility Act: A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing
How far can the word “flexible” stretch?
That’s the question being asked by labor and workplace equality advocates in response to the Working Families Flexibility Act, a bill introduced by Rep. Martha Roby (R-Ala.). The bill would amend the Fair Labor Standards Act to allow employers to offer compensatory time off (comp time) in lieu of overtime pay, and it’s being criticized for being coercive, normalizing wage theft and forcing low-income women into a workplace environment where the definition of “flexible” is left entirely to their employer’s discretion.
In a conversation with Campus Progress, Liz Watson from the National Women’s Law Center described the Working Families Flexibility Act as a “wolf in sheep’s clothing.” Essentially, the bill promises workers time-and-a-half off later instead of time-and-a-half overtime wages, but the scheduling of that comp time is entirely up to the employer—which means that employees working overtime to save their time off for surgery or a family vacation could be left out in the cold when their boss decides that week just isn’t convenient for the company. For a minimum wage worker, it's like giving your employer an interest-free loan of $1,600, explained Eileen Appelbaum in the Huffington Post.
And, Watson explained, in workplaces where flexibility is already employer-driven, what many employees need is the opposite: more stability and predictability in their schedules, so they can plan their childcare and other working obligations in advance. They need to have their employers provide them with their schedules weeks in advance, so they can swap shifts and make concrete plans.
What’s more, employers can also decide that it’s never convenient to give their employees the comp time they’ve saved up, cashing them out instead. Low-income women working extra time because they desperately need a specific chunk of time off may find that work was all for nothing.
Proponents of the bill argued that since employees theoretically have the right to say no, there’s nothing coercive about the bill. “That really reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the way that bargaining power in the marketplace plays out,” Watson told Campus Progress. “Expecting that workers in low wage jobs—who know that if they say no it’s very easy to let them go and hire the next worker who says yes—[be the ones] to say no reflects a total lack of understanding of the labor law violations that are going on today, particularly with respect to the Fair Labor Standards Act.”
The National Republican Congressional Committee recently released ads criticizing Democrats for failing to “stand up for working women” and urging visitors of sites popular among mothers to lobby their representatives to support the Working Families Flexibility Act. But this bill doesn’t translate to more freedom for working moms, as the ad suggests—instead, it locates control over worker flexibility and agency with employers.
“This is not a family-friendly policy and this is not what working men and women need. The Working Families Flexibility has been wrapped up with a bow to look like something shiny and pretty, but when you unwrap the package, what you see is that it’s just a bunch of empty promises,” said Watson.
Pauline Holdsworth is a reporter for Campus Progress. Follow her on Twitter at @holdswo.