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Comp Time Bills Off Target

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The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 is the principal federal law that regulates work hours and limits the expansion of the work week. By requiring employers to pay a 50% wage premium for work beyond 40 hours in a week, the act successfully made a 40-hour work week the norm, both legally and culturally. It is, in fact, the original and maybe the most important "family-friendly" law enacted by the federal government, since it established the principle that employees should have a normal work week short enough to leave ample time for leisure, rest, and family.

Yet employer organizations, which generally opposed enactment of the FLSA and have sought to limit or weaken it for more than 60 years, now allege that the law itself is somehow an impediment to family friendly work schedules. Since 1995, legislation has been introduced in the U.S. Congress to "modernize" the FLSA by changing the standard work week, overtime pay rules, and classifications of exemptions, on the presumption that the FLSA has become "outdated" (Finegold 1998; Abbott 1999; Wilson 2001; Bird 2000).

In particular, bills have been introduced (S. 317, the Working Families Flexibility Act, and H.R. 1119, the Family Time Flexibility Act) that would legalize the substitution of compensatory time off for overtime pay in the private sector. The Senate bill also proposes establishing an 80-hour standard over a two-week work period. If the true aim is to benefit working families, such legislation is inadequate, poorly targeted, and likely to prove counterproductive.