The time-money conundrum, and who gets to decide it

March 25, 1997|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON -- There are times when the demands of work and family ring in your ears like the words of the old highway robber: Your Money Or Your Life. Which will it be? Enough hours on the job to support a family? Or enough hours at home to raise a family? A paycheck to spend on your kids or time to spend with them?

The either-or, the work-and-family crunch is by now so universally acknowledged that any flexibility should be cause for applause. And surely, something called ''The Working Families Flexibilities Act'' should be getting a standing-O.

The ''flexibility'' bill that passed the House last week, and a similar one now in the Senate, would allow employers to offer workers compensatory time off as a substitute for overtime pay. Anyone working over a 40-hour week could get paid in either hours or wages.

That's swell in concept. Indeed, comp time is fine in practice for many workplaces, including the federal government. But The Working Families Flexibilities Act might be better named ''The Employers' Flexibilities Act.'' Or even, as some call it, the ''The Paycheck Reduction Act.'' While most workers would like the option of time or money, it's not clear whether this bill gives choices to the workers. Or to their bosses.

Karen Nussbaum, former head of the Labor Department's Women's Bureau and now with the AFL-CIO, calls it ''a wolf in sheep's clothing.'' In the last Congress, it was presented as a pro-business bill that would result in payroll (read ''paycheck'') reduction. Now it's dressed up in pro-family duds. But it still doesn't fit everyone.

Some 66 percent of workers say they don't have enough time for their families. But when you ask whether they need more time or more money, they divide about evenly. Ellen Galinsky of the Families and Work Institute reports that ''people wanted whatever they didn't have. Those who had money wanted time. Those who didn't have money, wanted that.''

What workers want

What every worker wants is the choice. But under this bill, it's uncertain who gets the power to decide when employees will take comp time. The worker who wants to take it during the kids' school vacation? Or the boss who wants you to take it during his slow time?

Despite safeguards added to the bill, the most vulnerable workers and their families could still be worse off. Will the boss pressure workers to take time when they really need money? Will companies prefer to hire or promote those who cost less?

The risks are even greater in the Senate version, which would change the current law so that overtime would begin after you worked 80 hours in two weeks, instead of 40 hours in one week. You could be working 60 hours one week and 20 the next. Family friendly? Try coordinating that with the baby sitter.

Comp time is, in short, a good concept. But this is a risky bill. And the combination is worse news for family policy. When everyone agrees in principle but not in detail, nothing happens.

The Clinton administration has been talking for years about flexibility and comp time, about balancing work and family. It was a highlight of the '96 campaign and a feature of the '97 State of the Union message. But the Democrats never got together a proposal, largely because of union opposition to any comp-time legislation. Only now, with the president promising to veto the Republican bill, are Democratic lawmakers scrambling for alternatives.

''The issue has been polarized and it's a shame,'' says former Labor Secretary Robert Reich. ''It's another example of the lack of a middle ground in management-labor relations.''

The unions resist comp time out of the fear that workers will be coerced out of their overtime pay. The business interests want control in the hands of employers.

So the search for sane balance between work and family is dependent on finding a sane balance between left and right, Democrat and Republican, labor and management. For the HTC moment, The Working Family Flexibilities Act looks like just another kind of highway robbery.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 3/25/97

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.