How Congress Wants to Balance Work and Family

Key proposals: comp time, unpaid leave

Each work day, Linda Smith is out the door by 7 a.m. and home by 5:30 p.m., her young daughter, Jessie, in tow.

When Ms. Smith works overtime, she's paid time and a half, as the law requires. But she'd rather be compensated in paid time off - time she could "bank" for future use, such as attending events at Jessie's day care or for a day off that wouldn't use up vacation time.

"I value my time with my daughter and husband much more than money," says Smith, a University of Miami secretary, who earns $17 an hour.

Like millions of men and women across the country, Smith is caught in the "time famine" that has become a staple of working life in America. With the dramatic rise in two-income families - and single-parent households - Washington is reacting to reality.

Smith supports a Republican proposal: an amendment to the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 that requires private-sector employers to pay time and a half to any hourly employee who works more than 40 hours a week. The proposed change would require companies to give workers the option of compensatory time, also calculated at time and a half, to be taken at a mutually convenient time.

It's unclear how many hourly workers would use the comp-time option, but it holds the potential to complicate life for employers - both in keeping track of comp time accumulated and in scheduling its use in a way that does not disrupt the flow of business.

President Clinton also wants to add a new dimension to the four-year-old Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which allows workers up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for family health matters. Mr. Clinton's new plan would allow workers to take up to 24 hours a year of unpaid time for family obligations, such as parent-teacher conferences or taking an elderly parent to an appointment.

Polls show strong public support for both concepts, though workers aren't flooding congressional offices with calls or letters. (Who has time?) Regardless of the specifics of legislation, Washington politicians - avidly wooing the women's vote - have tapped into Americans' struggles to balance work and family.

"There's a tremendous demand for having more control over one's life," says Arlene Johnson, vice president of the nonpartisan Families and Work Institute in New York, which studies these issues. "People are working more time than they want to."

A labor union lobbyist agrees: "What workers really want is a shorter work week." For now, challenging the notion of the 40-hour week is way beyond Washington's scope. And of America's 60 million hourly workers, there are plenty who want the pay that 40 hours of work brings; some count on overtime pay to make ends meet.

Organized labor opposes the Republican comp-time plan, saying that employers could use it to get out of paying overtime and could coerce workers into taking comp time at the employers' convenience. Labor's suspicion is heightened by the business lobby's support for the plan, which argues that public-sector workers already have the option of taking comp time in lieu of overtime and of working compressed work weeks.

The business lobby opposes Clinton's plan for 24 hours of unpaid leave as another intrusive government mandate. George Daniels, owner of a small manufacturing firm in Orlando, Fla., complains that such a law would require him to hire more accounting help to keep track of everyone's hours in a way that would pass muster if the Labor Department audited him. Already, he says, he's spent between $30,000 and $50,000 a year in administrative costs complying with the Family and Medical Leave Act.

Mr. Daniels is aware of surveys that show 90 percent of businesses have had no problems with the FMLA, but he suspects many businesses aren't implementing it properly. Ambiguities in the law make it difficult to account for employees' absences, and also open the law to abuse, he says.

He also says he doesn't need a law to tell him to allow an employee to take an hour off here and there for a family issue. "I don't know where these troglodyte employers are who won't let their employees go to parent-teacher conferences," he fumes.

Indeed, Ellen Bravo, head of the working women's organization Nine to Five, agrees that good employers don't need laws mandating them to be nice - and that good employers know that family-friendly policies help the bottom line by lowering turnover. But not all employers are so enlightened, she says.

"Can the government force a company to do the right thing?" Ms. Bravo asks. "No, but it can keep it from doing the wrong thing."

Another Democratic proposal, introduced by Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut, would expand the FMLA to include an additional 13 million employees by covering businesses with as few as 25 employees. Currently, the FMLA covers only businesses with more than 50 employees, or about half of working Americans. The GOP opposes the bill.

One factor that has certainly brought greater political attention to work-family issues is the growing role of men in the management of the home. With mothers now in the work force in large numbers, fathers are finding themselves with a greater share of the responsibility for keeping a household functioning.

Peter Faust, a $20,000-a-year supervisor at a residential care facility in Clear Lake, Iowa, testified before Congress in support of the Republicans' proposal for comp time. He and his wife, a nurse, have two children and two foster children. Juggling all the family demands around their work schedules is a stretch, he says. "There's schools, there's the kids' sick days, there's all the appointments to keep for the foster-care kids," he explains. "I don't get too much overtime, but I'd rather have the time 'gravy' than the money 'gravy.'"

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