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President Pushes Flextime

Times Staff Writers

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.”

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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.

Compensatory time and flextime options are available to government workers. According to the White House, 34% of federal workers and 30% of state employees chose those options in 2001.

In addition to calling for comp time instead of overtime, Bush proposed allowing the work schedule to be based on an 80-hour, two-week pay period.

Critics say that in practice, workers would be pressured to accept time off instead of the overtime pay, and that for many workers money is more important than time. Even if people were not forced to forgo overtime pay, critics argue, employers would channel overtime work to those who were willing to take comp time.

Critics also object that employees would have to take their earned time off when it suited the employer rather than when it suited the employee.

Flextime proposals have been even more controversial than those for comp time. Critics argue that they could be used as a way for employers to get workers to put in more than 40 hours a week without being paid overtime.

“Yeah, the economy is changing and people need more flexibility. But the bottom line is that people’s paychecks will be cut,” said Alan Reuther, legislative director of the United Auto Workers.

Despite such complaints, Republicans hope the issue will be a political asset, because it shows Bush addressing a kitchen-table concern that suffuses the economy.

Polls show that having more flexible work hours is a top concern of women. According to GOP pollster Bill McInturff, about 62% of the people who are undecided about the presidential election are women; 70% of those undecided women are working outside the home.

“What would help those women in their lives?” McInturff asked. “Flextime is not a bad place to start. It’s an interesting sign of the times that a Republican president would be pursuing an idea like this.”

The idea is also immensely popular among owners of small businesses, who are a core part of the GOP political base, and it has been endorsed by the principal small-business trade association. Bush spotlighted business support for the idea in Columbus by asking a local businessman to address the issue.

“I don’t think it should be my choice to decide what our employees should value more, whether they should value additional money for overtime or additional time off,” said Phil Derrow, president of an industrial parts distribution company.

The issue also gives Bush a way to respond to his Democratic critics who cite the more than 1 million jobs lost since 2001 as evidence that the president is more sympathetic to corporate chief executives than to employees. Many of those jobs were lost in industrial states such as Ohio.

“Listen, I understand something about the job base in Ohio,” Bush told his audience in Columbus. “People are skittish. But there’s jobs being created.”

Although foreign policy issues such as Iraq and terrorism have dominated the campaign, Bush’s hints at second-term priorities signal the belief by his strategists that the undecided voters could make up their minds based on matters closer to home.

Wallsten reported from Columbus and Hook from Washington.


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