The blizzards of 1996 snarled traffic in Washington, closed area schools and presented Arlyce Robinson with two minivacations she didn't want. An office manager at Computer Sciences Corp., Robinson was among thousands of workers who couldn't make it to the office during the snowstorms. And because of federal labor laws enacted during the depths of the Great Depression, her bosses would have had to pay her overtime if she made up the hours in following weeks. Her choices: Give up two days' pay or burn 16 of the 120 hours of vacation she's allotted this year.
"I really think it's a question of dignity, of professionalism," Robinson says. "I'd never turn clown the opportunity to make more money, but I'd happily give up the money if it meant I had more flexibility setting my own schedule."
Robinson and her employer are hamstrung by the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act, or FLSA, a centerpiece of New Deal labor legislation that enshrined the basic time unit of the American workplace: the 40-hour week. Now the act has come under attack as never before, with Republican majorities in Congress pushing a series of amendments. In addition, two well-financed business coalitions are arguing that the FLSA is inflexible, difficult to understand and even more difficult to comply with.
"Rules and regulations written to address the labor-force problems of 1938 become incredibly dysfunctional in the workplace of 1996," says Maggi Coil, director of compensation at Motorola Inc. and president of the American Compensation Association. The result has been a proliferation of informal agreements in offices and factories across the country, in which workers duck out for pressing personal errands while agreeing to make up time the following week - a direct violation of the law.
The law requires that employees covered by the act be paid time-and-a-half for each hour after 40. Employees such as Robinson cannot work 30 hours one week and 50 hours the next at regular pay, even if both the worker and the employer agreed.
Employers argue that rules particularly hurt female workers, who often need to juggle home and work responsibilities. One reform proposal, introduced by Rep. John Doolittle of California and Sen. John Ashcroft of Missouri, both Republicans, would allow employees to work up to 160 hours a month - rather than 40 a week - before the overtime clock starts ticking.
A second approach, contained in a bill drafted by Rep. Cass Ballenger of North Carolina, chairman of the House Economic and Educational Opportunities worker protections subcommittee, would allow private employers to offer compensatory time off in lieu of a cash overtime payment, up to 240 hours (30 working days) a year. Comp time typically is calculated at the time-and-a-half rate: A worker with six hours of overtime in the "bank" would be entitled to nine hours of paid time off at the regular rate of pay.
"We say the law needs tweaking, not a total overhaul,"argues Sandra Boyd, general counsel to the Flexible Employment Compensation and Scheduling Coalition, bankrolled by employer groups such as the National Association of Manufacturers and the National Retail Federation. "We want to see real flexibility made legal instead of being an under-the-table arrangement like it is in offices all across the country. …