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California and the West

Overtime Pay Bill Will Test Labor's Clout

Jobs: Unions are asking Sacramento's new Democratic power base to revive bonus compensation for work beyond eight hours a day, repealed two years ago by Wilson administration.

May 03, 1999|MARK GLADSTONE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — No piece of current state legislation is more important to organized labor than a proposal requiring that overtime be paid to many workers after an eight-hour workday.

Two years ago, the Wilson administration repealed that long-standing section of the labor code, ending overtime for millions of employees until 40 hours had been worked in a single week.

The battle over restoring the eight-hour rule is shaping into a classic struggle between unions and business as well as one of the early tests of just how much clout organized labor will wield with the Democrats, in charge in both the Legislature and the governor's office for the first time in 16 years.

The California Labor Federation, a major backer of Gov. Gray Davis, is sponsoring the bill to reinstate the eight-hour day standard--one the California Chamber of Commerce brands a "job killer" that would eliminate flexibility for employers.

The measure, introduced by Assemblyman Wally Knox (D-Los Angeles), has reached the Assembly floor, where it is expected to be considered in the coming month. It is designed to cover most hourly workers in the state, including many manufacturing and hospital employees.

As they shape the Knox bill, Democrats say they are waiting for direction from the governor.

Davis has agreed to bring back an eight-hour day, but has yet to spell out his opinion of the Knox measure or whether he believes it goes too far in revamping the current overtime system.

"The governor is in the process of determining how best to restore the eight-hour day," said Michael Bustamante, Davis' press secretary.

In discussing how to approach the issue, Bustamante said, Davis has talked about providing flexibility, "particularly for women" to craft agreements with their employers.

Fashioning a compromise is a delicate task.

Democrats are mindful of the need to craft a bill that has protections sought by their labor allies, but also keeps business interests from squawking too loudly.

The current controversy has its roots in actions taken early in the century. In 1911, the state established an eight-hour day, but the law did not require payment of daily overtime or limit the number of hours that could be worked in a day.

Daily overtime was first required by the state Industrial Welfare Commission in 1918 in an order covering women and children in the fruit and vegetable canning industry.

As time passed, the daily overtime requirement was expanded to other industries until, labor union officials say, it affected about 8 million men and women by the time it was rescinded by the Wilson administration.

In reestablishing daily overtime, Knox has added several new wrinkles, partly in response to critics. His measure allows workers to select an alternative workweek, such as a schedule of four 10-hour days.

And employees can take off up to four hours to go to the doctor or a Little League game and make up the hours on other days without being paid overtime.

"In point of fact, the bill . . . is far more flexible than the regulations that California lived with for 80 years," Knox said at a recent Appropriations Committee hearing.

Much of the debate over the legislation turns on the question of flexibility--whether labor orders produced years ago are relevant today to working families who are trying to juggle the demands of their jobs with the demands of parenthood.

Beverly J. Ford, the owner of a small court-reporting service in Ventura and Woodland Hills, raised this issue in a letter to the California Chamber of Commerce in support of the current overtime setup.

"Occasionally, my employees need personal time off during the regularly scheduled workday for which they normally would not be compensated," Ford said. "Under the existing laws, I have the flexibility to offer those employees the option of working extra time on another day of that week to offset the personal time taken."

Art Pulaski, secretary-treasurer of the labor federation, downplayed the objections. "Business can complain about [the proposal]," he said, "but it's nothing more than what had been done for years."

Pulaski acknowledged that the Knox measure does extend the overtime rules to some industries, such as hospitals, where it did not previously apply.

Under the measure, hospitals would be prevented from having nurses work three 12-hour shifts without being paid overtime, unless it was agreed to in labor negotiations. Or the 12-hour shifts could still be maintained, but overtime pay would be required after eight hours, or after 10 hours if an alternative scheduled was approved, according to the Assembly analysis of the measure.

Pulaski questioned the effectiveness of hospital employees who have worked 10- or 12-hour days.

But Art Sponseller, a spokesman for the California Health Care Assn., which represents hospitals and group physicians, said: "There's no evidence that a 12-hour shift degrades quality of care."

Moreover, he said, hospitals need to be treated differently than other businesses. "One size doesn't necessarily fit all," he said. "Lots of employees like the three-day schedule for a variety of reasons, including child-rearing."

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