The Republican-led House on Wednesday approved a measure that would give private sector workers the option of trading overtime pay for extra time off weeks or months later.
The bill, approved on a 223-204 vote, would allow employees who work more than 40 hours a week to save up to 160 hours of earned time off for future use. GOP lawmakers say they want to give busy working parents at private firms the same flexibility that public sector workers have to take time off to spend with their children or care for aging parents.
Democrats and worker advocacy groups say it opens the door for employers to pressure workers not to take overtime pay. And they warn there is no guarantee workers would be able to take the extra time off when they want.
The bill has little chance of success in the Democratic-controlled Senate. President Obama has threatened a veto, saying the bill would not prevent employers from slashing overtime hours and doesn't offer enough protection for workers who may not want to receive compensatory time off instead of overtime pay.
The measure is part of a broader Republican agenda aimed at expanding the party's political appeal by offering conservative ideas to help average Americans on issues like economic growth and job creation.
"This legislation simply removes an outdated federal policy that denies private sector workers the flexibility they need to better balance family and work," Minnesota Rep. John Kline, head of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, said in a floor speech.
The plan would change the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which requires covered employees to receive time-and-a-half pay for every hour over 40 within a work week. The proposal would allow workers to bank up to 160 hours of comp time per year that could be used to take time off for any reason.
Current law only allows private sector workers to swap comp time for overtime pay within a single pay period. The time can't be saved up for use later in the year.
The GOP measure would let an employee decide to cash out their stored comp time at any point and forbids employers from coercing workers to take comp time instead of cash.
Democrats say it's not fair to compare the legislation to similar flexibility that is offered to public sector employees because many government workers are unionized and have civil service protections against potential abuse by employers.
Opponents say the reason public sector workers were given the option to take time off instead of overtime pay in 1985 was to save cash-strapped governments money. They say that's why business groups are lobbying in favor of the bill, not to protect workers.
"This isn't women-friendly, this isn't mom-friendly, this isn't family-friendly," said California Rep. George Miller, top Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce committee. "This is friendly to people who want to get rid of overtime and bring down the 40-hour week that protects families so they're not working all the time."
Critics also say the bill lets employers decide whether to grant a specific request to use comp time, so workers have no guarantee of when they could use the time. Even if workers can collect their unused time as cash at the end of the year, opponents argue that essentially gives employers an interest-free loan from employees.