Congress, as Boss, Reads Labor Laws and Weeps

Now Capitol Hill must obey rules it writes

IT'S been the norm on Capitol Hill for decades: Junior staff and committee aides are among the most overworked employees in the country. They routinely pull 60-hour weeks with no overtime, drafting legislation, waiting out late votes, even chauffeuring "the member" to parties or running out to buy face cream before TV appearances.

Since Congress has not had to abide by the same workplace standards it sets for the private sector, practices that are indefensible elsewhere have long been legal here. There's a reason that many staffers, half-jokingly, call Congress "the last plantation."

But tomorrow these inequities may start to vanish, as the Congressional Accountability Act (CAA) begins to take effect. Passed last year, this law finally extends the nation's labor rules to Congress and allows staffers to sue if rules are breached.

New CAA-based overtime limits for many workers could have a dramatic impact on congressional Congress, as office budgets and productivity. In fact, some observers say that when Congress gets a taste of what it has required for the private sector, lawmakers may decide to loosen the nation's labor laws entirely.

"The Congressional Accountability Act will have a tremendous practical impact on the workings and operations of Congress," says Deanna Gelak, spokeswoman for the Society for Human Resource Management, a proponent of the CAA. "Our intent was not to generate lawsuits, but to make members of Congress understand the practical reality of these employment statutes. We believe better policy will be the end product."

Punch the clock, Buffy

So far, the new law has only swamped congressional offices with paperwork. Under the CAA, tomorrow Congress must comply with the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), which has guided private-sector labor rules since the 1930s. From now on, offices must provide everything from job descriptions and performance reviews, to written records of hirings and firings and hourly timekeeping.

In addition, the FLSA requires congressional offices to determine how many employees qualify for overtime, and how many can be considered "professional," or exempt from hourly pay.

Although private companies have struggled with these fuzzy categories for years, Congress is new at it. By some estimates, as many as two-thirds of congressional employees will be non-exempt, meaning that they must be paid time-and-a-half for every hour over 40 hours per week.

As a result, members of Congress have to either shoo their young charges out the door at 5 o'clock and leave much legislative business unfinished or hike their annual appropriations to cover the cost of overtime.

As the public continues to clamor for fiscal responsibility, and Congress is setting records for hours in session, neither option looks appealing.

"The more I learn, the more confused I get," says a chief of staff to a Republican congressman. By her calculation, she says, only five of 18 staffers in her office are exempt from overtime.

Advocates of the CAA say that these rules will make Congress a fairer and more more hospitable work environment, even if it takes longer to get things done.

"I'm used to having a member call overnight and say, 'Draft an amendment on this or that,' " says a committee staffer who helped write the CAA. "From now on, people will have to think further ahead. This is Congress's opportunity to become more efficient."

Indeed, Ms. Gelak, once a congressional staffer herself, says the CAA will protect congressional employees from themselves. "The young talent coming right onto the Hill is vulnerable in many ways," she says. "Many of them arrive with stars in their eyes, and they're so anxious to get congressional experience, they don't realize they're being exploited."

But for the most part, neither bosses nor their fresh-faced staffs cheer the prospect of a 40-hour work week. "I don't think of it as exploitation," says a legislative assistant who asked not to be named. "Most people come to the Hill because they love politics, and working late is a good way to get noticed." Besides, since most of his colleagues are young and single, "evening hours are just an extension of our social life."

Equal pay and all that

More changes loom. Eventually, Congress will be forced to comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act; the Federal Labor Relations Act, which will allow congressional employees to unionize; the Worker Retraining and Notification Act, which requires notice of closings or layoffs; and laws governing age discrimination, rehabilitation, equal pay, and family and medical leave.

Already, this flood of new regulation has many staffers predicting that, ultimately, Congress will overhaul labor laws in general.

"When you think about a small business having to [comply with these rules] with little guidance, you have to wonder whether they need to be updated for the 21st century," says one aide.

Two bills now under consideration would amend current labor statutes to provide more flexibility. The first, sponsored by Rep. Cass Ballenger (R) of North Carolina, would allow workers to receive overtime in the form of compensatory, or "comp," time.

The second, sponsored by Rep. John Doolittle (R) of California and Sen. John Ashcroft (R) of Missouri, would allow employees to work however many hours a week they choose, as long as the total averages 40 hours a week over four weeks.

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