A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Gena Bigler: New bill before Congress would end overtime pay and 40-hour work week

Overworked, and without recourse. Most Americans work longer hours than ever before and are seldom “off the clock.” Congress recently voted to essentially end our 40-hour work week and overtime pay. “The Working Families Flexibility Act H.R. 1406,” is not yet law, and is in a Senate committee, but we are precariously close to losing rights that have protected the American worker since 1938.

This deceptively titled bill would replace our current overtime pay after 40 hours worked each week with ‘compensatory time.’ This time off would be at the employers’ convenience, so there are no guarantees about getting the time off at all. Unscrupulous employers may heap on extra work hours with unfulfilled promises of future time off. The workers’ only remedy would be to sue their employer which is costly, inefficient and practically impossible for most workers.

Relying on the ethics of business to take care of workers has not worked in the past and there is no reason to think that it would today. Most big business takes full advantage of every opportunity to increase profits; this would be one more avenue for profit on the backs of workers.

Americans work more than any other industrialized nation. As we move into vacation season, 88 percent of Americans will take their e-devices with them to check in with work. A third of Americans don’t take their allotted vacation time. Some workers fear that taking time off, even if it is allowed, will cost them either by losing promotions or being replaced with more ‘dedicated’ workers. As the middle class and working poor struggle to make ends meet, those with a million or more are increasing wealth at unprecedented rates.

Increasingly, our elected officials are rich. The median net worth of our Congress is about $900,000 more than the median net worth of the average American household which is $66,740. The people making decisions about work weeks and minimum wage have no practical knowledge of them. Nearly half the members of Congress each have a net worth of over a million dollars. Very few millionaires have ever had to rely on a minimum wage job to pay their bills. If they did, maybe more Congressional members would realize how far minimum wage is from a living wage.

To cross the great divide, several elected officials have attempted to live for a week on the allotted amount of food stamps appropriate for them. While I applaud this effort towards empathy, one week of giving up four-star restaurants is not the same as relying on food stamps for survival. It is not the same as going hungry so your child can eat. It is not the same when you can count down the days until gourmet returns. For the working poor, there is no counting down the days; there is no end in sight.

Congress has recently attempted to cut food stamp programs by $4 billion and voted down a proposal to raise minimum wage. Contrast that amount with the $52 billion that is spent on oil, gas and coal subsidies to huge profitable corporations. Children are the primary beneficiaries of the food stamp program, alongside the 1.5 million veterans who relied on food stamps in 2011.

Overworked Americans must be vigilant to hold onto the rights we have enjoyed for decades. Class climbing in America is being reduced to surviving. Politicians are increasingly winning elections funded by out of state money instead of relying on local constituents to provide financial support for their campaigns.

Workers’ rights are on the chopping block, along with protections and support for the working poor. As politicians are more removed from these struggles, we must remind them of what is best for America. We must remind them to protect the working class that sustains America.


Gena Bigler is passionate about public service and credits her time serving nonprofits in AmeriCorps and Volunteers in Service to America (V.I.S.T.A.) with teaching her extreme budgeting and bargain shopping. Gena is now CFO of McNay Settlement Group and serves on the board of the Lactation Improvement Network of Kentucky (L.I.N.K.). Gena would be happy to hear from you at lgbigler@gmail.com.


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