WASHINGTON — The US House approved a Republican-backed bill Wednesday that would give private sector workers the option of taking comp time for working more than 40 hours a week, instead of receiving overtime pay.
The measure is unlikely to pass in the Democrat-controlled Senate and President Obama has threatened a veto, but it carries political value for Republicans who can argue they were attempting to give employers and employees a broader range of compensation options. Republicans — who are seeking support from more female voters — are calling the bill fair and pro-family.
“I think this goes beyond party affiliation,’’ said Representative Kevin McCarthy, Republican of California . “This goes to the core of what America believes, and it empowers the individual.”
The bill, approved 223 to 204, would allow employees who work more than 40 hours a week to save up to 160 hours of earned time off for future use. GOP lawmakers say they want to give busy parents at private firms the same flexibility that public sector workers have to take time off with their children or to care for aging parents.
But Massachusetts legislators and labor unions say the bill, titled “The Working Families Flexibility Act,” offers flexibility in title only.
Democrats say the bill would allow employers to pressure workers into taking time off instead of overtime wages. They also said it gives employers too much power to decide when an employee can take the additional time off.
“It isn’t flexibility for families when they cannot take the time when they need it,” said Elizabeth Toulan, comanager of the Massachusetts Paid Leave Coalition.
Employees who elect to take time off would be awarded 50 percent more time off than the number of overtime hours worked. The choice would made by the employee.
The bill allows employers to prevent workers from taking the time off at particular times if it would “unduly disrupt the operations of the employer.” Toulan said that means a parent seeking to use earned time off to deal with a sick child, for example, could be denied a leave at a particular time.
“It should be called the Right to Work for Less Act,” said Representative Chellie Pingree, Democrat of Maine, during debate Tuesday.
The US Chamber of Commerce defends the measure, rejecting Democrats’ assertions that it would allow employers to avoid paying overtime wages.
“That does not hold up,” said Marc Freedman, executive director of labor law policy at the chamber. “The employer is going to be paying that same amount out at some point.”
But Democrats said workers who choose overtime pay instead could be targeted for retaliation by employers.
“If a worker is coerced into taking comp time by his employer, he has little recourse,” said Representative Jared Polis, Democrat of Colorado. “This law would also make workers vulnerable to firing, or not being hired in the first place if they inform their employer they would prefer to collect overtime instead of comp time.”
Representative John Tierney, Democrat of Salem, said it could also cause businesses to hire fewer workers. If they can save money by steering employees to time off for extra hours, instead of hiring more workers to avoid paying overtime wages.
“Why would we would want to change our policy to incentivize [employers] to not hire more people?” he said.