COLUMBUS, Ohio — President Bush called on Congress on Thursday to pass legislation making it easier for employers to offer workers time off instead of overtime pay -- an idea Republicans hope will appeal both to Bush's core business supporters and to swing voters juggling home and work responsibilities.
The idea is also part of a broader effort to cast key elements of Bush's domestic agenda as ways to help workers adapt to major changes in the U.S. economy, such as the diminishing number of families with a stay-at-home parent.
"I think the government ought to allow employers to say to an employee, 'If you want some time off, and work different hours, you're allowed to do so,' " Bush told a crowd of supporters in Ohio, where polls show he is in a dead heat with Democratic nominee Sen. John F. Kerry. "Government ought to be helping families."
Although Bush cast the proposal in terms designed to appeal to working parents, critics -- including Kerry and labor unions -- called it a backdoor effort to deny workers the overtime pay that many depend on to make ends meet.
"This administration has launched an all-out assault on overtime," Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) said in a conference call arranged by the Kerry campaign.
Despite the broad popularity of flexible work schedules, legislation to promote them has drawn so much opposition that leaders of the Republican-controlled House decided last year not to bring it to a vote.
Nonetheless, Bush has put new emphasis on the issue in his campaign speeches in the last week as he has come under growing pressure from fellow Republicans to detail his domestic agenda for a second term.
Like the flextime proposal, which Bush has supported for several years, much of what he has put on that agenda so far has been the unfinished business of his first term: making his 2001 and 2003 tax cuts permanent; allowing workers to invest part of their Social Security payroll taxes in personal retirement accounts; providing tax breaks for the purchase of health insurance; and expanding job-training programs at community colleges.
But in pitching those policies, Bush lately has been putting them in a broader context. He argues that many existing health, labor and pension policies are outmoded because of significant changes in the economy over the last generation, including the increase in families where both parents are working. The White House says that in 2002, nearly two-thirds of married mothers with children younger than 6 were working.
"This world is changing," Bush has told almost every audience he has addressed recently. "We need to make sure government changes with the times."
Bush has linked the flexible work schedule proposal with a call for giving people more control, or "ownership," of their lives -- an agenda that includes expanding tax-advantaged savings accounts to pay healthcare costs and allowing younger people to invest in private retirement accounts.
The president notes that workers traditionally get their health and pension benefits from their employers, but that many of today's new jobs are created by small businesses, which he says often cannot afford those costs. That is part of the reason, Bush says, that he wants to give individuals more control over their health coverage and pension investments.
Bush's critics argue that the proposals amount to a fig leaf for a drive to narrow the traditional role of government and business in providing a secure pension, affordable health insurance and overtime pay.
"A lot of these things are about relieving employers and government of responsibility and putting it on the individual's back," said John Lawrence, Democratic staff director of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce.
At issue in the debate about work schedules is a provision of the Fair Labor Standards Act that guarantees that hourly private-sector employees receive time-and-a-half pay for time worked in excess of 40 hours a week.
Bush called Thursday for legislation that would allow employers to offer time off -- or compensatory time -- instead of the overtime pay. A worker would get 1.5 hours off for every hour of overtime, so that a person who worked eight hours of overtime would be entitled to 12 hours off, the White House said.
Current law also restricts employers' ability to schedule flextime without paying overtime, or an arrangement where employees work more than 40 hours in one week and then less than 40 in the next. Employers can ask an employee to work 50 hours in one week and 30 hours the next, for example, but they must pay overtime for the extra 10 hours worked in the first week.
Bush says the changes he is proposing would allow a person to work extra hours in one week and take the same number of hours off the next but be paid as if both were regular workweeks. A parent, for example, could use this arrangement to free up time to chaperon a child's school trip, the White House said.