In February, in the wake of their bruising loss at the polls in the 2012 presidential election, Republicans in Congress decided to launch a concerted effort to change their image and lure back a critical group of voters who abandoned the party in droves last year: women. To that end, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) gave a high-profile speech about how the party intended to "make life work" for working families. He emphasized women-friendly ideas like improving education, reducing the cost of college, and other key work/life balance issues. Among those he touched on was the idea of flex time. Cantor said:
If you're a working parent, you know there’s hardly ever enough time at home to be with the kids. Too many parents have to weigh whether they can afford to miss work even for half a day to see their child off on the first day of school or attend a parent-teacher conference.
Federal laws dating back to the 1930s make it harder for parents who hold hourly jobs to balance the demands of work and home. An hourly employee cannot convert previous overtime into future comp-time or flex-time. In 1985, Congress passed a law that gave state and municipal employees this flexibility, but today still denies that same privilege to the entire private sector. That’s not right...
Imagine if we simply chose to give all employees and employers this option. A working mom could work overtime this month and use it as time off next month without having to worry about whether she’ll be able to take home enough money to pay the rent. This is the kind of common sense legislation that should be non-controversial and moves us in the right direction to help make life work for families.
Flex-time as Cantor described it sounds great on paper—every working parent's dream even! But of course, the devil is in the details. Those details come in the form of the Working Families Flexibility Act, a bill Cantor introduced in April. Far from helping working families, the proposed legislation would instead deprive them of the longstanding right to be paid time-and-a-half for overtime. The bill would allow companies to give hourly workers comp time in lieu of overtime if the workers agree to it. That might not be such a terrible thing, except that the bill doesn't give workers any power to decide when to use the comp time. The employer gets to decide that. If the employer fails to let the worker use a bunch of accrued comp time, the bill would allow the worker to demand the overtime compensation in cash, but it gives the company 30 days to make good on the payment. And if the company stiffs the worker on the overtime compensation, the bill prevents workers from complaining to the US Department of Labor, as they can now, and instead forces them to try to find a lawyer who will take up their cause to collect a few hundred dollars worth of back pay, a fairly toothless enforcement measure. The bill, supported by the US Chamber of Commerce, is a backdoor attempt to shield big companies like Wal-Mart from costly lawsuits they've seen stemming from their systematic refusal to pay low-wage workers the overtime to which they're legally entitled.
All of this is why women's groups aren't signing on to the bill. The legislation "only pretends to give people the time they need to manage the dual demands of work and family," Debra Ness, president of the National Partnership on Women and Families, said this week as the bill moved forward in the House. "It is insulting that the House is wasting time with a bill that would make things so much worse."
Republicans' track record of helping working families is truly dismal, and one speech from Cantor isn't going to change that. Republicans fought the Family and Medical Leave Act tooth and nail (the first President Bush vetoed the bill twice before Bill Clinton finally signed it in to law) and have refused to expand it to include more people or paid leave so families could actually use it. This is the same party that rabidly opposes the Healthy Families Act, which would provide paid sick leave for more workers, a measure public health officials say is critical not just to family sanity but to the nation's health. Perhaps what's most depressing about the GOP's new working families bill is that Republican leaders thought women were dumb enough not to notice that it was just a cynical attempt to win women's votes while still catering to the GOP's big corporate backers.