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Q&A : Workday Debate Focuses on Accommodating Personal Needs

June 29, 1996|MARTHA GROVES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When President Clinton earlier this week proposed that companies offer paid "flex" time to nonexempt workers in lieu of overtime pay, he dived into a raging nationwide debate that could lead to dramatic changes in the nation's Depression-era work laws.

The federal law, devised when Congress was scrambling to find ways to get people back to work and protect them from workplace abuses, has been changed only grudgingly since the 1930s. Now, Republican legislators and the president have come up with competing plans that in theory would give stressed-out workers more flexibility to help balance their work and personal lives.

Organized labor, the chief stumbling block, foresees a sinister outcome: companies coercing employees into taking time off instead of overtime pay, to which many workers have become attached at a time when real wages are declining.

In California, meanwhile, an effort is underway to eliminate an unusual 1918 work rule, seen by Gov. Pete Wilson as detrimental to his efforts to attract business and speed a recovery. With the backing of business, Wilson is seeking repeal of the so-called eight-hour rule, which requires companies to pay workers time and a half for any time worked beyond eight hours in a given day.

Such time-honored rules, many workers, employers, academics and politicians say, have been rendered obsolete by new economic and sociological realities.

Here is a primer on the federal law, the California rule and the proposals for changing them.

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Q. Why are changes being proposed?

A. Proponents of the various changes--which, not surprisingly, are being proposed in an election year--say the nature of work has changed drastically. Indeed, we have moved from a nation of blue-collar factory workers to a land of "knowledge workers."

As corporate downsizings have thinned the ranks of middle managers, the line between exempt and nonexempt workers, often blurry, has become invisible in many companies. Mass layoffs and demands for ever-increasing productivity have also encouraged supervisors to demand more of workers. Workers' lives have grown complicated as vast numbers of women have entered the work force, making caring for elderly relatives and children more problematic, and giving rise to the need for more flexibility in work schedules.

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Q. What does the federal law require?

A. The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 demands that private-sector companies pay time and a half to workers whenever they are on the job more than 40 hours per week. (The law does not apply to union members, who are covered by their contracts.)

When the law was passed, the nation was mired in the Depression and tens of thousands of out-of-work Americans were clamoring for factory jobs. By passing this law, Congress hoped to stimulate hiring by making overtime work prohibitively expensive.

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Q. What about the California rule?

A. Back in 1918, the California Industrial Welfare Commission ordered that fruit and vegetable canning companies pay time and a half to women and children for any time beyond eight hours in a given day. The rule was extended to men in 1980.

California is one of just four states (the others are Alaska, Nevada and Wyoming) with such a rule. Because it is perceived as more favorable to employees, it outweighs federal law. Most other states follow the federal standards.

Earlier this year, Wilson, backed by business, sought passage in the state Assembly of a measure that would have eliminated the rule and brought California into conformity with federal law. But that bill, strongly protested by organized labor, was defeated by a state Senate panel. Wilson then asked the state Industrial Welfare Commission to repeal the requirement. The agency has launched several rounds of hearings into the matter, but no action is expected for at least several months.

The California rule differs from federal law in another key way. Companies may propose that a unit or division go on a flexible schedule--such as four 10-hour days with the fifth day off. Such alternative arrangements are subject to approval by two-thirds of workers.

Responding to workers' requests, Hughes Electronics Corp. in El Segundo, for example, recently instituted two pilot programs that give workers either a half-day or full day off in return for working 9- or 10-hour shifts on other days.

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Q. Charges of wage abuses in garment "sweatshops" have been rife lately. Do companies knowingly abuse the overtime rules?

A. State officials and labor lawyers say plenty of companies fail to comply with the law. To be sure, the rules can be murky and technical. But some companies, they say, flout the rules. Overtime violations routinely surface in the garment trade, construction and agriculture.

In some cases, companies seek to get around the overtime rule by making employees exempt, even though those workers' duties do not meet the criteria.

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Q. How does the GOP want to change the national law?

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