President Clinton yesterday vetoed legislation strongly opposed by organized labor that would have allowed companies to set up employee-manager teams to address work issues. But he also signaled he would be willing to break with labor and negotiate on another piece of legislation that would give companies the right to offer workers a choice between wages or time off as compensation for working overtime.
In vetoing the Teamwork for Employers and Management Act, Clinton said, "This legislation, rather than promoting genuine teamwork, would undermine the system of collective bargaining that has served this country so well for many decades." The legislation had narrowly passed Congress, so there is little chance Clinton's veto could be overridden.
But the White House struck a more conciliatory note in assessing comp time legislation approved in the Republican-led House yesterday by a vote of 225-195. The bill would give employers the ability to offer nonprofessional employees the option of taking extra time off in return for working more than 40 hours a week.
The Working Families Flexibility Act, sponsored by Rep. Cass Ballenger (R-N.C.), would amend the Fair Labor Standards Act, which requires employers to pay "time and a half" -- 1.5 times the normal hourly wage -- for work exceeding a 40-hour-per-week maximum. The measure approved by the House yesterday would allow employers to offer workers the option of earning 1.5 hours of compensatory leave for every extra hour they worked.
The measure would apply only to workers in the private sector. Federal, state and local government employees have been allowed to claim comp time instead of extra pay for overtime work since 1985.
Republican lawmakers are touting the House-approved measure as a family-friendly policy that has particularly strong support from working women -- a constituency with which Republican candidates have fared poorly in this election year.
Congressional Democrats have come out against the idea, siding with some of the nation's largest labor unions. The unions argue any modification of the current law could be exploited by employers. They fear firms seeking to cut labor costs will force workers who would rather have the extra pay to take time off instead. Overtime accounted for about 15 percent of the paycheck of the average manufacturing worker last year.
"This is an excuse to undermine the living standards of working families," argued Rep. William "Bill" Clay of Missouri, senior Democrat on the Economic and Educational Opportunities Committee. "It should be called flimflam flex time."
"This is not about flextime for workers. It's about more flexibility for employers," said Rep. Lynn C. Woolsey (D-Calif).
But Clinton is staking out the middle ground. Although he promised to veto the bill approved by the House yesterday, aides stressed that Clinton supports the larger objectives of the Ballenger bill and stands ready to sign a "comp time" proposal, provided it includes sufficient safeguards against employer coercion.
"We don't want to do anything that will jeopardize earnings, particularly at a time when so many workers are struggling to make ends meet," said Labor Secretary Robert B. Reich. "At the same time, however, the president would like to give employees who want extra time the opportunity to take it. It's a matter of finding the right balance."
Clinton favors legislation that would allow workers to sue employers who forced them to take time off instead of overtime pay and to receive "double damages" if they proved their case, Reich said.
The administration also wants to make sure that employees, not employers, get to decide when they can use the extra time earned from working overtime, according to Reich. The House-approved bill would allow employers to require workers to provide "reasonable notice" before using comp time, but the standard for notification is not defined.
Clinton and Republicans both favor language permitting a company to reject an employee's request to use comp time if the firm can demonstrate that a worker's absence would disrupt business. But Reich said Clinton wants to set a "higher standard of disruption" than the one advocated by Republicans.
The comp time bill will have to win approval in the Senate before it reaches Clinton's desk. Sen. John D. Ashcroft (R-Mo.) has introduced legislation similar to the Ballenger proposal. But Republican proponents of the idea said yesterday the Senate is unlikely to take up the issue before it adjourns next week.