Flexible schedules common, but not always official company policy

Posted: Thursday, January 16, 2003

WASHINGTON -- Scott Carver is a morning person who likes to get to work at DuPont early so he can leave while it's still light outside.

''I like to feel like I have a day left to do things,'' said the 32-year-old lab technician, whose daily commute from his home in the Detroit suburbs to Troy, Mich., takes about 45 minutes.

Carver arrives at 7 a.m., though the company's policy lets him start anywhere from 5:30 a.m. to 9 a.m., as long as he lets his supervisor know what schedule he wants to work a month in advance.

DuPont's flexible time policy started years ago to help employees with children, many of whom also had a spouse working for the company.

''Everybody appreciates it and uses it,'' said Carver, who drives in every morning with his wife, Jaime, an accountant for DaimlerChrysler. She also has some flexibility in her schedule.

''For people who have kids, it allows them to get them off to school or to day care. There's a lot of families that work there,'' Carver said.

Almost 29 million full-time wage and salary workers, or nearly 29 percent, have schedules that allow them to vary the time they begin or end their day while working 40 hours weekly, according to the Labor Department. But only about one-third of those employees work for companies with official flex time policies.

The proportion of workers with such schedules has grown slightly since 1997, when the department last collected the data. Then, 26.6 percent reported working flexible schedules. Just 15 percent had flex time in 1991.

Flexible schedules were most common among executives, administrators and managers, with 45.5 percent able to vary their work hours. Sales workers, at almost 41 percent, also benefited.

Men were somewhat more likely to work flexible schedules than women -- 30 percent to 27 percent. White workers (30 percent) were more likely to have such schedules than blacks (21 percent) or Hispanics (nearly 20 percent).

Moving beyond start and end times, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other business groups want to make it easier for employers to offer time off instead of overtime pay for employees who work more than 40 hours a week.

Federal labor law requires that hourly private sector employees be paid time and a half for every hour worked beyond 40 hours a week. Compensatory time instead of overtime is not an option. Managers, supervisors, executives and professionals generally are exempted and do not receive overtime pay.

Legislation to make the changes sought by the business groups has been introduced every year in Congress since 1994.

Business groups, more encouraged now that Republicans control both the House and Senate, want to allow compensatory time for all workers if an employee chooses.

Legislation by Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., the incoming chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, would change the traditional 40-hour work week to a biweekly, 80-hour schedule. Workers could be scheduled to work a maximum of 50 hours in one week within the maximum 80 hours over two weeks.

Congress and the Labor Department need to ''release private employers and employees from the strict overtime rules that presently restrict their ability to experiment with nontraditional, flexible work arrangements,'' said Bill Kilberg, a member of the Chamber's labor relations committee.

The Labor Department also is updating the white collar exemptions and expects to issue proposals early this year, said Victoria Lipnic, assistant secretary for the Employment Standards Administration.

''Most of those regulations have not been changed since 1954,'' she said. ''We want to simplify them and clarify them so they have more applicability to today's work force.''

Labor leaders are skeptical. They note that companies do not need new legislation to put flex schedules into practice and contend that a desire to avoid paying overtime wages is motivating business groups.

''Nothing prohibits employers from requiring as many hours as they want,'' said Christine Owens, the AFL-CIO's public policy director. ''The overtime pay requirement is the only thing that acts as a break on excessive work hours.''

She also could foresee efforts to expand the white-collar exemptions so fewer workers would be entitled to overtime pay.

In addition, labor leaders fear that workers, given a choice between overtime and comp time, would be pressured to take the time off.

Several large companies, including Wal-Mart, Best Buy, RadioShack, Starbucks, Borders and Pep Boys, have been accused of forcing employees to work unpaid overtime. Many have settled or lost lawsuits.

Labor leaders say allowing compensatory time off gives employers too much power -- such as being able to cancel it at the last minute, restricting when it can be taken or cutting back on sick leave and vacation time.

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