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Newspapers have failed to explain Family Friendly Workplace Act fairly.

Is Sen. John Ashcroft's new bill, the "Family Friendly Workplace Act," one you can support? How much do you really know about it? Only a smattering, if you've depended on the St. Louis press to spell it out in depth for you.

It's an important piece of legislation, one that would revise the Fair Labor Standards Act for the first time since it was enacted in 1938.

The bill would allow private employers to offer their workers a choice between compensating time off and time-and-a-half pay for overtime work. In lieu of money, workers could bank up to 240 hours of compensatory time to be taken later, with the bosses not being allowed to apply any pressure or inducements.

The bill would say goodbye to our standard 40-hour workweek, now 59 years old. It would be replaced by an 80-hour work period spread over two weeks before any overtime kicks in.

(Admittedly the measure is a work in progress - what we see now may not be what we'll get if Congress passes it this session, which seems likely at this writing.)

The battle lines are drawn, along party lines, of course, but you - as the "public" in "public journalism" - may not be up to speed enough to know which side to take.

What we have here, to a degree, is a failure to communicate.

Newspapers are in the best position to lay it all out for you, it seems to me. Some of the talk shows may have covered it well (I haven't heard any), but how many people hear any particular show on radio, TV or cable?

But this isn't the stuff of entertainment - it's news-analysis or op-ed page material. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the St. Louis Labor Tribune have done articles about it, but neither gave a full, objective account.

Ashcroft and his co-sponsors labeled the bill "family friendly" apparently to give it a populist spin, a measure anyone would support. Democrats have countered with equally loaded words of opposition.

Here are some fragments from Post news articles describing the measure:

"Ashcroft's bill would allow workers to accumulate extra hours for flexible paid leave, to replace the 40-hour-week with a two-week 80-hour schedule, and to take compensation [sic] time off instead of overtime."

"The employer would have to agree to the specific time off requested and could refuse if it 'unduly disrupts' the work process."

"By stretching the workweek to an 80-hour, two-week concept, the bill would give you flexibility without added cost for your employer." This flexibility would permit "working 48 hours one week and taking a day off the next week."

But what if your boss doesn't agree to let you off "one day next week" - the day you want to attend your kid's school play or soccer game, for instance?

Two important points of the bill that haven't been adequately spelled out for St. Louis readers, so far as I can determine, are:

1. If you can't choose the compensating time off you want for such "family-friendly" activities as school plays, family outings or teacher conferences, where are the bill's "family" values?

2. Those 80 hours worked in a two-week period before overtime kicks in might mean that your boss works you six 10-hour days the first week and the other 20 hours at the end of the second week. No overtime pay or comp time for you there! You would have had a lot of free time that second week, none of it of your choosing.

Post reporter Philip Dine did report that possibility deep in an article in March when he wrote about the bill and its progress (it has passed the House and has been reported favorably to the Senate floor for debate).

The Labor Tribune did point out that 80-hour "loophole," if that's the word for it, saying:

"The promises of the new Senate bill are empty ones; there would be no guarantee of overtime for long hours on the job. For instance, a worker could be assigned 10 hours one week and 70 hours the next; under present law, the worker would get 30 hours of overtime (at time-and-a-half) during the second week; under the Ashcroft bill, that worker gets nothing at all but a lot of sleepless nights the second week."

"Nothing about the senator's bill is family-friendly," it added.

The paper declared the bill to be just a way for employers to cut their wage costs, saying that surveys show most workers would choose pay over comp time because they need the money.

"Senator Ashcroft's plan is, purely and simply, another way to hold down wages while maximizing productivity," it said.

President Clinton has offered to compromise with Sen. Ashcroft, thus withholding his promise of a veto. One of the points he wants made explicit is the workers' right to choose comp time that's convenient for them, not for the boss.

These points seem to be the center of the dispute between the Democrats and Republicans, and need to be brought home much more clearly while there's still time for the public to have input. There's no dispute over offering workers a choice.

Future headlines will be labeling the measure simply as a family-friendly, flex-time measure. But public journalism, now the rage, would dictate that casual readers - the working men and women - be made aware now of the contentious issues at stake.

Most Americans may never know the whole stow until it becomes law.

You can e-mail any comments to me at:

Larry Fiquette is the former Readers' Advocate for The St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
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Author:Fiquette, Larry
Publication:St. Louis Journalism Review
Date:May 1, 1997
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