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Democrats' blanket rejection of flextime is shortsighted

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SACRAMENTO—News flash for Democratic state lawmakers: Not all Republican ideas are kooky.

Some make sense. A few GOP bills might even help struggling workers — the very people Democrats are supposed to be fighting for in the state Capitol.

One such idea is to expand the opportunity for flextime, the ability of wage earners to schedule their work hours to fit personal and family needs.

I'm thinking especially of low-income, single parents — moms or dads.

Some may prefer to work, say, four 10-hour days rather than five eight-hour shifts. Then they'd have three days off a week.

But that would require giving up two hours of overtime pay after working eight hours. And unions object to that as a blanket rule. So, therefore, do Democratic legislators, who fall obediently in line with their political patrons.

Republicans have been pushing flextime year after year for a decade and been shot down each time.

"It always runs into the buzz saw of party-line voting," says Senate Minority Leader Bob Huff (R-Diamond Bar). "It seems to be a flashpoint for labor unions. Like, they won't even consider it.

"We always talk about job creation. I don't think the majority party even knows what that means."

The long-running Sacramento debate over flextime came to mind as I skimmed Maria Shriver's latest tome on women. Titled the Shriver Report, it's about American working women "on the brink." It's 433 pages of slick paper, women's essays and polling data — doorstop size — that cites many problems facing female workers and offers solutions.

Some solutions are politically problematic, such as a national requirement for paid sick leave. Others are no-brainers, such as equal pay for equal work — and flextime.

That caught my eye because no one has a more Democratic pedigree than Shriver, the niece of President John F. Kennedy and daughter of Sargent Shriver, architect of President Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty. Yet, ironically, it's Democrats who keep killing flextime in Sacramento.

Full confession: My daughter co-edited the book and has worked with Shriver on previous projects. But it was another daughter, a nurse, who got me writing about flextime 20 years ago when she was a stressed single mom trying to juggle hospital and parent duties.

Nurses today are provided more flextime opportunities than most workers.

California has what's called an eight-hour day. Generally, any hours worked over that — with some exceptions for nurses and farm hands — must be paid at time-and-a-half, unless another arrangement is negotiated by a labor union.

So right there you can see a valuable recruiting tool for unions. Sign up with us, they can tell workers, and we'll negotiate some flextime for you.

Unions argue that workers can actually do this on their own. But the law makes it complicated. Employees can ask their employer for an alternative work schedule and, if the boss agrees along with two-thirds of the workers in a secret ballot, the flextime is approved. There'd still be overtime pay after a 40-hour week.

A two-thirds vote requirement? That's something Democrats normally abhor in legislative chambers.

"California law is extremely difficult to navigate," says Debbie Horne, a human resources director for a Santa Barbara manufacturer who has lobbied unsuccessfully at the Capitol for flextime. "There are too many hurdles. And companies just don't want to go down that path."

Unions also point out that workers can ask to leave a job early — to pick up a kid or go to a doctor — and make up the work later in the same workweek.

But Republicans want to make it simple: Allow employees to work up to 10 hours a day without overtime, but still require extra pay after putting in more than a 40-hour week.

That's the way it was briefly in the 1990s, when Republican Pete Wilson was governor and the GOP controlled the Assembly. Democrats soon recaptured the house and labor-indebted Gov. Gray Davis signed the current law in 1999.

Significantly, the vast majority of other states allow flextime under provisions sought by California Republicans.

"It works in 47 other states," says Assembly Minority Leader Connie Conway (R-Tulare), whose flex bill is the latest to be killed by Democrats. "We should be able to figure this out. We're smarter and better. Some labor flexibility doesn't seem like that big an 'ask' to me."

Responds Caitlin Vega, lobbyist for the California Federation of Labor: "We believe that having an eight-hour day is important to give people time to go home to their families. Eight hours of work, eight hours of rest, eight hours of what we will."

Problem is, many single parents need a full weekday for household management and kid duties. Also, avoiding commute traffic an extra day a week would help out with global warming — another supposed Democratic concern.

Conway's bill got a routine hanging in the Assembly Labor and Employment Committee on Jan. 8.

Labor warned that if the measure became law, employers would intimidate workers into accepting 10-hour days to avoid paying overtime.

The state Chamber of Commerce countered there was no evidence of that in other states. It called flextime a "job creator."

The bill was rejected on a party-line vote — symptomatic of political polarization and one-party rule in Sacramento.

Republican ideas are summarily dismissed — unless they're good enough to be stolen by Democrats. So here's one to steal.

george.skelton@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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