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Overtime pay

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In today’s hectic lifestyles, families can find it difficult to juggle the conflicting demands of home and work. A single, working mother has to take a day off to stay home with a child. Or dad has to miss work to tend to an emergency at home. For millions of workers, the decision is made more difficult knowing they won’t get paid for the time off.

Unless you’re a government employee. Then you have a choice that federal labor laws deny to private sector workers. Public employees can use compensatory time off that they build up in lieu of time-and-a-half overtime pay. If you work in the private sector, you’re not so fortunate due to a 75-year-old law adopted when American society, the workforce and family life were radically different.

The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 requires covered employees to receive time-and-a-half pay for every hour over 40 within a workweek.

That had applied to federal, state and local government employees until 1985, when they were given the option of taking the overtime pay or using the extra hours to build up compensatory time to attend their child’s school play, go to a doctor or take care of other personal business without losing pay.

Legislation has been introduced in the House to level the playing field and give private sector workers the same flexibility in deciding to swap overtime pay for compensatory time. The bill would allow private sector employees to accumulate up to 160 hours of overtime as comp time that could be used to take paid time off for any reason.

President Obama has threatened to veto the bill. Congressional Democrats and labor unions oppose the plan, arguing employers might coerce workers to take the comp time to save on overtime wages.

However, Rep. Martha Roby’s bill would forbid that. It would also allow employees to cash in their accrued comp time at any time. Workers using comp time might not receive the same pay as overtime, but in an emergency the time can be a benefit worth the trade-off.

The exemption for public sector workers was intended to save money by giving governments flexibility. There is no reason why private businesses and workers should not be able to do the same with a properly written law that protects employees against abusive practices and lets them make their own decisions.

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