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Comp-Time Compromise

Republicans and Democrats have been going head-to-head in the Senate. At issue is a GOP bill allowing private-sector employers to offer hourly workers a choice between paid time off or overtime pay as compensation for extra hours on the job. Another controversial provision of the legislation, known as the "Family Friendly Workplace Act," would allow employers to schedule employees for 80 hours of work over two weeks, even if one of those weeks entailed more than 40 hours of work.

Republicans and Democrats recognize how important balancing work and family has become to working Americans, especially women. When wage and overtime laws were passed in the 1930s, 16 percent of mothers with school-aged children worked outside the home. Today, 70 percent have joined the work force. The law should change with the times.

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Critics of the Senate bill, most prominently organized labor, say it gives workers few protections against employers who will force them to accept time off rather than extra pay. (Labor leaders also say the flextime provision could destroy the 40-hour work week.) President Clinton has threatened to veto the bill, as well as a similar one passed by the House. He supports a Democratic substitute that would try to protect workers from abuses, but gives them less flexibility.

For instance, it would allow workers to "bank" only 80 hours of comp time, at a rate of 1-1/2 hours for every hour of overtime worked, to be taken as paid time off each year. The GOP bill, on the other hand, would allow employees to accumulate as much as 240 hours of comp time each year.

A recent amendment to the GOP bill by Sen. Arlen Specter (R) of Pennsylvania has helped bridge the gap somewhat between Republicans and Democrats. The amendment would prohibit employers from directly or indirectly asking an employee to accept comp time in lieu of overtime pay. Employers also could not assign overtime to employees based on which employees want to be paid in cash and which want to be reimbursed with comp time. Employers who abuse these stipulations would be subject to both criminal and civil penalties.

These safeguards should be enough to allay Democrats' concerns. Now, however, the White House says it won't negotiate until Republicans agree to drop the 80-hours-scheduled-over-two-weeks provision. Yet for years federal, state, and local government workers have enjoyed similar flextime (and comp-time) options with few problems. Democrats and Republicans alike can agree that flexible work arrangements are the best way to help working families. Now it's time to vote.

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