STATE AND LOCAL governments have been storming Congress for relief from a February Supreme Court ruling. That decision reinstated a 1974 law giving state and local workers the same general wage and hour protections as private sector and federal workers. Perhaps some exemptions are needed, but the matter is by no means as clear as these governments would have you believe.
The Fair Labor Standards Act is far less strict than seems to be assumed in much of the prevailing argument. As states and local governments have improved their wage scales, meeting federal minimum wage requirements has faded as an issue. Instead, argument focuses on rules governing overtime pay for rank-and-file workers (professional, administrative and executive workers are exempt) and the use of nonpaid workers.
Because many public employees work irregular schedules, requiring time-and-a-half pay for overtime work is said to add enormously to governmental costs, thus requiring cutbacks in both jobs and services. In fact, the FLSA would have no effect on such common arrangements as split shifts for bus drivers, 24 hours-on/48 hours-off work schedules for fire fighters or work weeks that regularly include weekends or late hours. Overtime pay is required only if total hours within a seven-day work period exceed 40. Moreover, for policemen and firefighters, further bunching of hours is allowed within totals set for each four-week period.
Although minor adjustments in pay practices or work schedules may be needed, most government workers in the more populous areas of the country are already covered by rules at least as strict as the federal standards. As more states and localities have sat down with their workers to see what's really involved, estimates of additional costs from applying the FLSA have been shrinking precipitously. Localities such as Phoenix have also found that many of those costs can be avoided by a little judicious rearrangement of work schedules -- with gains in management efficiency as well. Many government workers have grown used to accumulating "compensatory time" -- sometimes at multiple rates -- in return for overtime hours, but government offices may find they don't really need so many extra hours if they recognize the real cost as a direct budget item.
Perhaps Congress needs to make exceptions for very small governments as it does for very small businesses. Perhaps Department of Labor rules for reimbursing volunteer workers are stricter than needed to prevent routine circumventions of the law. Perhaps the rules should be phased in more slowly. But Congress -- especially with "privatization" of public services so much in vogue -- should not rush to decide that most government and private-sector work cannot meet the same standards.
It's worth asking, for example, whether the taxpayer is well-served by allowing government workers to stay on the job for abnormally long hours in return for extended vacations. And if that is truly an efficient arrangement, why shouldn't private employers have the same option?