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House Committee Examines Workplace Flexibility in the Public Sector

The House Education and the Workforce Subcommittee on Workforce Protections held a May 15 hearing to examine flexible work policies in the public sector and how those policies can be applied in the private sector. This was the second in a series of hearings on workplace flexibility aimed at laying the groundwork for future consideration of legislation that would provide flexible work options in the private sector.

In 1938, Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), which prohibits employers in the private sector from offering employees the choice of compensatory time off in lieu of overtime pay. In 1978, Congress passed legislation allowing federal employees to arrange alternative schedules; in 1985, Congress extended flexible work options to all public sector employees allowing them to receive compensatory time off in place of overtime pay.

Last year, Rep. Judy Biggert (R-IL) introduced legislation (H.R. 1982) that would allow private sector employers to offer their workers the choice to receive paid time off in lieu of cash payments for overtime work. The bill would require a written agreement between the employer and the employee, entered into voluntarily and knowingly by the employee. Compensatory time would be calculated at a rate of one-and-one-half hours of comp time for every hour of overtime work. Workers would be allowed to accrue up to 160 hours of compensatory time per year, and employers would be required to provide cash payments to employees for any unused, accrued time at the end of the year.

In his opening statement, Subcommittee Chair Charles Norwood (R-GA) noted, “Workers want options that will allow them to make choices about spending more time with their families or pursuing interests outside of work.” He added that current law “fails to provide private sector workers with what they need and expect to have in terms of workplace flexibility.”

Ranking Member Major Owens (D-NY) pointed out that Congress passed comp time legislation for public sector employees “to reduce overtime costs for state and local governments.” He argued that public sector employees have more protections than workers in the private sector, which is less regulated. “There are big differences between the public and private sectors,” he said. “About 40 percent of public employees belong to unions, but only 15 percent of private sector employees are represented by unions,” he emphasized, and added, “More than 85 percent of private sector employees may be discharged for any reason at all.”

Donald Winstead of the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) gave an overview of how flexible work schedules are implemented for federal employees. “A 1998 survey conducted by OPM found that 92 percent of federal agencies reported offering flexible work schedules and 79 percent reported offering compressed work schedules,” he said.

Andy Brantley of the University of Georgia told the subcommittee that, “From my perspective having worked for both a public and private university in human resources, I believe employees at private universities should be afforded the same flexibility that their public sector counterparts enjoy to help meet their own work-family needs by allowing all employees the opportunity to have the choice between compensatory time and overtime pay.” He added, however, that comp time is not without its issues, citing that “keeping track of comp time is difficult.”

Representing the Society for Human Resource Management, Thomas Anderson said, “Many private sector employees are perplexed as to why comp time is not offered in the private sector.” He told the subcommittee that two states, Washington and Michigan, have enacted legislation to allow compensatory time for private sector workers. He added that if “unused comp time is cashed out, it could be costly to employers.”

Dennis Slocum of the International Union of Police Association testified that comp time is “essential to the survival of the street cop.” Law enforcement professionals “want, need, and appreciate the Congressional comp time provision because it allows them some control over their schedule, time for family, relief of stress, a day of fishing, a PTA meeting or a ball game,” he emphasized.

While speaking in strong support of providing compensatory time for public sector employees, Mr. Slocum said that, “Private sector compensatory time raises special problems beyond those in the public sector.” As examples he cited, “Employers could force employees to take comp time in lieu of overtime wages,” and part-time and seasonal employees would be excluded from comp time provisions.

Rep. Norwood pointed out that H.R. 1982 would prohibit employers from forcing employees to take comp time in place of overtime pay. “That would be illegal,” he said.

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