Should Government Deny Workers a Choice in Comp-Time?

In her Detroit Free Press column on the Family Time Flexibility Act, (“Don’t make workers slaves, keep OT,” May 1, 2003) Prof. Ellen Dannin of Wayne State University Law School outlines a host of ways in which “comp time” could backfire for workers. In the process, she disserves the workers whose cause she hopes to champion.

Under this bill, employees would have the option of taking time off as compensation for overtime work. Comp time has become popular among government employees; this bill would make comp time available to private-sector workers.

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But Prof. Dannin sees danger. She envisions an employer who would make workers work 80 hours one week, make them take the whole second week off, and pay those workers for only 40 hours of work, counting the time off as payment for the remaining 40.

What Prof. Dannin may not realize is that federal law not only provides for comp-time in the government sector, it also specifies that employers who offer comp-time must offer paid leave in exchange for overtime. The Family Time Flexibility Act would not change this rule.

Consequently, under the new law, those employees who worked 80 hours in one week would be paid for the 40 regular hours they worked, and could take the following week off, if they liked, at full pay. And since comp time is “banked” at 1 1/2 hours for each hour of overtime worked, those same workers would still have 20 hours paid leave left over, to take any time they wished.

Prof. Dannin is also concerned about the possibility that workers will be unable to cash in comp time when they leave their jobs or if the company fails. This is a real risk, but not unique to comp time. Right now, when a troubled company folds it can conceivably leave workers with no pay for their last two weeks of work as well as for accumulated vacation or sick time. Under the Family Time Flexibility Act, employees worried their companies may be about to go under can protect themselves by opting out of the company’s comp time program and requesting cash payment for comp time already recorded, which must be paid within 30 days.

In fact, if an employee believes at any time, and for any reason, that comp time is a bad deal for them, they can opt out. This is why Dannin’s fear that comp time will allow employers to “work their employees for no pay,” turning them into “slaves, plain and simple,” is simply wrong.

The average individual can generally figure out what is in his or her own best interests. There is no reason to believe that Michigan workers would be an exception to this rule, or that comp time would prove too difficult for them to figure out. There always are advantages and disadvantages for new employment policies, which vary from worker to worker. But in the case of comp time, the potential benefits far outweigh the risks: a more flexible work schedule, and more time to spend with family and friends.

The Family Time Flexibility Act gives workers and employers a choice they do not have currently, the option of exchanging overtime for time off. We should allow them that choice.

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Paul Kersey is labor research associate at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute.