Orthodox Union Blasted by Labor Group

By Nacha Cattan

Published May 16, 2003, issue of May 16, 2003.
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A Jewish labor group is blasting the largest Orthodox organization in America for endorsing a bill that labor unions say is a Republican assault on workers’ rights.

The legislation in question is a House bill that would allow businesses to offer workers time off from work, known as compensatory time, in place of time-and-a-half overtime pay.

The Orthodox Union endorsed the bill in an April 2 letter that was widely disseminated on Capitol Hill by Republican leadership. The endorsement and its broad exposure angered the Jewish Labor Committee, which is gathering other Jewish organizations to oppose the legislation.

The AFL-CIO describes the proposed bill as part of a larger attack on overtime pay and the 40-hour workweek by the Bush administration and Republican lawmakers. Union leaders say a similar bill in the Senate contains the comp-time measure and also seeks to replace the 40-hour workweek with an 80-hour biweekly schedule. Labor leaders and Democratic legislators view both bills as a deceptive attempt to redistribute income from workers to their employers.

Union lobbyists save their most strenuous objections for an administration proposal to change the rules under which a worker is able to claim time-and-a-half overtime pay. The U.S. Department of Labor claims that the proposal would offer an additional 1.3 million low-income laborers overtime pay. Union activists say untold millions would be denied such overtime income.

Business groups and other supporters of the comp-time measures note that the House bill allows workers to opt out and includes strongly worded safeguards against bosses who coerce employees to take comp time instead of the extra pay. They say the measure enables workers to have more control over their schedules so that they may attend school functions and observe religious holidays.

The provision giving workers flexibility in their schedules is what attracted the Orthodox Union to the bill. “The absence of any flexibility in the work schedules of employees may force them to choose between putting food on the table and their fidelity to the faith at the center of their lives,” the O.U.’s letter states.

“This bill will serve as an important first step toward eliminating the need for these difficult choices,” the letter continues, referring to the House bill.

The O.U. sent the letter to a House subcommittee, which later passed the bill. The chairman of the subcommittee, Rep. Charlie Norwood, a Georgia Republican, publicized the O.U.’s endorsement in a “Dear Colleague” note distributed to every member of the House.

Avram Lyon, executive director of the Jewish Labor Committee, criticized the O.U.’s position. “The O.U. is looking for something very particularistic for its members without thinking about the implications of that on the entire Jewish community,” he said.

Lyon also said that Norwood’s letter “makes it appear as if the Jewish community supports the Republican position on this, and that is simply not the case.”

To offer an alternative Jewish view, Lyon’s group is now collecting signatures from Jewish organizations opposed to the bill ahead of a scheduled vote on the House floor later this month. The National Council of Jewish Women has registered its willingness to sign on to the letter. In addition, the top leader of the Rabbinical Assembly of Conservative Judaism, Rabbi Joel Meyers, said he disapproved of the bill.

O.U. officials, who were unaware that their letter would be publicized, defended their stance: “It’s not like we went to [the House] and drafted this bill and went to war with the labor movement,” said Nathan Diament, the director of O.U.’s Institute for Public Affairs. “We’re just trying to serve the interests of our constituents.”

Appearing to suggest a political compromise with labor, Diament added that if a long-stalled Senate bill to protect religious freedom in the workplace were passed, the O.U. “might have a different calculus as to whether or not we would need to support the flex-time bill.”

Unions say the House bill, the Family Time Flexibility Act, is an erosion of the landmark Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. They warn that despite the bill’s anti-coercion provision, businesses could indirectly pressure employees to choose comp time by granting more overtime work and higher pay to those who do. They say the penalties are too mild and would be almost unenforceable in the private sector.

Unions claim that an employer’s ability to deny a request for comp time if it will “unduly disrupt” business operations would give businesses control over workers’ time off, despite the stated goal of flexibility. They add that there is no protection for workers saving up comp time in a company that goes under.

“The bottom line is that this is a bill for employers, not employees,” said Kelly Ross, a legislative representative for the AFL-CIO in Washington. “They are talking about the option of the employer not to pay cash overtime. That is the only incentive for employers to keep a 40-hour workweek.”

Supporters of the bill, however, dispute that. “This bill in no way affects the sanctity or primacy or inviolability of the 40-hour workweek,” said Jeff Trexel, a spokesman for Rep. Judy Biggert, a Republican from Illinois who sponsored the bill.

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