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House okays comp time in lieu of pay

The Republican-controlled House of Representatives voted Wednesday to allow employers to offer workers compensatory time as a substitute for overtime pay.

The bill, which Republicans said would allow workers to choose time off instead of money, passed 222-210, with 209 Republicans and 13 Democrats in favor. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who rarely votes, joined the majority. The bill was opposed by 191 Democrats, 18 Republicans and 1 independent.

Florida's delegation followed party lines, except for Republican Lincoln Diaz-Balart, who voted against the bill, and Democrat Allen Boyd, who voted for approval.

President Clinton said he would veto the bill, which would alter a 1938 law that requires employers to pay overtime to hourly employees who work more than 40 hours a week. But he may not get the opportunity because Democrats in the Senate may prevent the measure from coming to a vote. So Wednesday's activity may have been largely an exercise in political symbols.

Republicans, especially Republican women, contended that the measure was "pro-family," as Rep. Sue Myrick of North Carolina put it. Rep. Susan Molinari of New York said that it would give "this country's hard-working parents" a chance to spend more time with their children.

Democrats dismissed her argument, saying that bosses would coerce workers into choosing time off, hurting those who "depend on overtime to put food on the table and pay the mortgage," as Rep. John W. Olver of Massachusetts said.

Much of the political energy behind the measure, whose partisan significance was shown by its designation as HR 1, the first bill introduced this year, came from Republicans who believe it could help the party appeal to working women. That group of voters, nearly a third of the electorate, gave 57 percent of their votes to Democratic House candidates last year.

Another political bonus of the bill, at least for revenge-minded Republicans, was the sharp opposition of the AFL-CIO, which spent millions of dollars trying to defeat Republican House candidates last fall. That point was not made in debate, but several Republicans said, off the House floor, that they savored the measure for its enemies.

The 50-year-old Fair Labor Standards Act requires employers to pay workers an hour and one-half's wages for every hour of overtime worked, although union contracts can waive that guarantee. Republicans contended that their measure was meant only to encourage voluntary arrangements in which workers, particularly those not covered by union contracts, could choose an hour and one-half of time off for every overtime hour worked.

Democrats argued that businesses would use the measure to coerce workers into taking time off in lieu of pay. But proponents said the bill had provisions for triple damages against employers who coerced workers. "An employer would be a fool if he tried to intimidate an employee," said Rep. William F. Goodling, R-Pa., who heads the Education and the Work Force Committee.

Democrats countered that the realities of the workplace would overcome any of the fine-sounding protections of the bill.

Rep. Robert E. Andrews of New Jersey said, "On paper, this sure looks like choice. In the real world, it sure looks like coercion." Rep. Albert R. Wynn of Maryland said employers would say, "If you want your job, you'd better take comp time."

Rep. Adam Smith of Washington said the bill was not sought by workers but by employers. "The employers simply want another advantage," he said. Rep. Robert Menendez of New Jersey said the bill was designed to reduce "our workers to the status of serfs."

Goodling repeatedly told the Democrats that they had not read the bill and did not understand it. And other Republicans argued that encouraging compensatory time was a way to modernize the Fair Labor Standards Act.

"Come up to the modern age," said Rep. Marge Roukema, R-N.J. "This is 1997, not 1938. Working families need options and choice."

The bill passed by the House would apply mostly to workers who were not members of unions. For most union members, it would not supersede existing union contracts, some of which now provide for compensatory time arrangements.

But Peggy Taylor, legislative director of the AFL-CIO, said the measure would add the compensatory time option immediately, despite existing contracts, in the building trades and for workers covered under the Railway Labor Act, which covers railroad and airline workers. She said the federation feared passage of the law would put pressure on unions to agree to compensatory time provisions in the future.

Some highlights of the bill

+ Allows employers to offer employees a choice of 1.5 hours of cash wages or 1.5 hours of paid time off for every hour worked over 40 in a seven-day period.

+ Employees may take time off within a reasonable time of their request, unless it unduly burdens the employer.

+ Employers can decline to participate in a comp time agreement.

_ Information from AP was used in this report.

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