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Passing up overtime pay for comp time sounds good, but ...

It could be that the Bush administration simply wants to prove how un-French we are.

In contrast to the 35-hour work week enjoyed by citizens of that nation, the Department of Labor and the GOP-controlled Congress are pushing separate measures that would likely result in longer hours for American workers — for less overtime pay.

Late last month, the administration proposed changes to labor regulations that would affect overtime eligibility for an estimated 2 million workers, who would be reclassified from wage-earners to salaried employees, or vice versa.

And legislation surfaced in the House of Representatives just last week that would allow private-sector workers to take comp time in lieu of overtime pay, much as federal and state workers have been able to do since 1985.

Both measures are touted by their GOP sponsors as benefiting ordinary American workers and, at first glance, might seem to do just that. The comp-time change, in particular, is being marketed with the claim that it would give working stiffs more time to spend with their families.

Union leaders, however, say both proposals are part of President Bush II's ongoing efforts to help out big business at the expense of workers — and the timing is no coincidence.

"The media is so geared to the war that it's a good time to slip this through," says Richard Ray, president of the Atlanta-based Georgia AFL-CIO. "The administration doesn't like organized labor and it's doing everything it can to weaken us."

The new regulations — which don't require congressional approval — would allow more blue-collar workers to qualify for overtime pay, while denying overtime to some well-paid, white-collar professionals who now receive it under the current rules.

Department of Labor officials claim the changes should make an estimated 1.3 million workers newly eligible for overtime; only about 650,000 workers should lose OT, they predict.

Chris Owens, director of public policy for the national AFL-CIO, however, is among labor leaders who are suspicious of those numbers. Ambiguities in the rewritten rules likely will make it easier for big businesses to reclassify employees out of their overtime pay.

The comp-time legislation — which bears the warm-and-fuzzy title, the "Working Family Flexibility Act" — would allow, but not require, companies to let employees decide whether they'd rather have comp time instead of overtime pay.

As with overtime, the comp time would be calculated at time-and-a-half — meaning that an employee who worked four overtime hours could choose to receive six hours of comp time, for which he'd be paid at his usual hourly rate. The idea, supporters say, is to give single mothers or busy dads the option of taking out time for their kids.

The employee could elect to "bank" his comp time, saving it up to use for an extended vacation. If caught in a cash crunch, he could decide at any time to "cash out" his comp time for OT pay. And, unlike sick days at many employers, accrued comp time can't be lost — companies would be required to cash out unused hours at the end of the year or, heaven forbid, if the worker is fired.

But embedded in the bill is a catch, and it's a humdinger: The company ultimately decides when — and, indeed, if — its employees can use the comp time they've earned.

In the grand tradition of intentionally vague legislation, the bill calls for companies to grant employees' requests to use their comp time "within a reasonable period," providing that "the use of the compensatory time does not unduly disrupt the operations of the employer."

Thus, the worker who saves up his days off so he can, say, spend two weeks with his kids over summer vacation, has no guarantee that he can use the time when it's convenient to him.

"We think it's a scam; there are too many games to be played with this bill," says Charlie Flemming, president of Atlanta Labor Council.

At the very least, he says, companies would be inclined to reserve overtime shifts for those workers who are willing to take comp time — thus giving the company more flexibility — rather than those workers who may need the overtime pay.

In the worst-case scenario, companies could decide there's no convenient time to allow employees to use their comp time. The company would be required to cash out that OT at the end of the year; in the meantime, however, the company would essentially have enjoyed an interest-free loan at its employees' expense.

And if the company goes bankrupt before the comp time has been used, the worker could lose even the chance to be paid for his OT.

If that kind of distrust of corporations sounds overly negative and un-American, says Flemming, consider that Wal-Mart was found guilty last year of forcing its Oregon employees to work unpaid overtime hours.

"If you expect big business to do the right thing, it's not going to happen," Flemming says.