On Thursday morning, the House Subcommittee on Workforce Protections held a hearing regarding the innocuously titled Working Families Flexibility Act of 2013, which would allow workers to choose between receiving overtime pay or additional time off in exchange for extra hours on the job. While supporters of the legislation say it would give employees the freedom to decide on their own how to use their overtime, critics argue that the power would really be in the hands of the boss.
"This legislation is based on smoke and mirrors," said National Partnership for Women and Families senior adviser Judith Lichtman in her testimony before the committee. "It pretends to offer the time off people need, when they need it, but in fact, it is a pay cut for workers without any attendant guarantee of time."
Speaking to msnbc.com later that day, she described the legislation as an "Employers Flexibility Bill."
"It's the employer that gets to decide when and under what circumstances you can take this comp time," she said. She also expressed concern that employers could pressure employees into taking comp time rather than pay. These employers could then also decide who to give overtime hours on the basis of who they would have to grant overtime pay or comp time.
The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM)—a human resources trade group with executives from Burger King, Yahoo!, and other major companies sitting on its board—argues that the employees would welcome increased flexibility.
"There is no doubt that employees today are juggling ever more responsibilities between work and home, which is why many employees are requesting more flexibility at work," said SHRM member Juanita Phillips in her own testimony to the subcommittee. The Working Families Flexibility Act "meets the needs of both employees and employers."
While SHRM champions "flexibility" as a boon to workers and managers alike, some worker rights activists are wary of the term. "The business community always wants to have more flexibility in how to schedule workers," said Sherry Leiwant, co-president of the progressive legal center A Better Balance. Instead of flexibility in scheduling, Leiwant's organization advocates for legislation such as mandated paid sick leave.
Besides SHRM, one top-ranking congressional Republican has acted as an advocate on behalf of the Working Families Flexibility Act. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, though not a sponsor of the bill, alluded to it in a February speech intended to "repackage conservative principles through a familial lens."
"Federal laws dating back to the 1930s make it harder for parents who hold hourly jobs to balance the demands of work and home," he said, apparently referring to the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act which guaranteed paid overtime. "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."
The day before the subcommittee hearing, he reiterated his report in a statement, saying, "This is the kind of common sense legislation that we should all be able to support and will make life work for more families."
The Working Families Flexibility Act was first proposed in 1997. At the time, future House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called it a "cruel hoax on the American family."
Watch msnbc’s Chris Hayes tackle the Working Families Flexibility Act on the April 11 edition of All in with Chris Hayes: