By DANIEL TAUB
Susan Goldsberry, a single mother of four and a sheet metal worker from Burbank, believes that the state’s repeal of the daily overtime law could mean financial disaster for her family.
“If they cancel the eight-hour overtime pay, I have really no recourse and no way to change things to get anything saved for the future,” Goldsberry said. “That’s like my savings account.”
But for Joseph Barnum, a Monterey Park machinist, the change means that he can shuffle his work hours for personal reasons without losing any pay.
“If I wanted to take a day off Friday, I would work 10 hours a day for four days,” Barnum said. “Sometimes I need to go to a doctor or a dentist, so I take time off that day. So I work 10 hours (another day) to make it up.”
The two arguments typified last week’s debate that followed the state Industrial Welfare Commission’s decision to scrap a 79-year-old law requiring employers to pay hourly workers time-and-half for more than eight hours worked in a day.
Although employees still earn overtime pay if they work more than 40 hours in a week, they would receive only normal hourly pay even if they work 12 or more hours in a day.
Business groups argued that the new flexibility would be good for employers and workers that workers could take time off for personal reasons and then make up the hours later.
“Employees are frequently asking employers to rearrange their work schedule,” said Willie Washington, director of human resources for the California Manufacturers Association. “We can’t do any of those things under the current law without either breaking the law or having to pay overtime to compensate the employee.”
But the CMA and other groups said there was a more important reason to bring California’s overtime laws in line with 47 other states and the federal government: So that the state’s businesses can remain competitive.
In other states, Washington said, factories operating around-the-clock can have employees work 12-hour days necessitating only one shift change during the day, as opposed to three in California.
Factories with only one shift change have higher productivity, Washington said, because there is greater continuity in production, less time wasted when workers pass on production information to the next shift’s workers, and fewer parking hassles as one shift leaves and another arrives.
Twelve-hour shifts have not been feasible in California, Washington said, because of the requirement for overtime pay after eight hours. “We can’t do it without incurring additional costs, compared to what that same production cost is in other states,” he said.
Although the CMA, the California Chamber of Commerce and other business organizations publicized the new law’s benefit to employees who need to take time off for personal reasons, labor groups said last week that it will be a rare instance when the employee benefits.
“That’s a scenario that I don’t think presents itself very often. If (employers) want their workers to work overtime, it’s because there is a demand,” said Fabian Nunez, spokesman for the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor.
Employers, not employees, would have the power to decide whether the worker gets overtime or compensatory time off.
Nunez said the primary beneficiary of the daily overtime law’s repeal is not California’s workers, but rather the state’s employers. After the overtime change, businesses will be able to force their employees to work excessively long hours, he said.
“An employer can now require an employee to work a 12-hour shift one day and shorten the hours they have to work another day,” Nunez said. “Employers are now going to make the adjustments so they can have employees work longer shifts at lower pay.”
But business groups said that the primary reason labor groups have opposed the new law is that they have long used the voluntary repeal of daily overtime as a bargaining tool during contract negotiations.
“The unions are claiming this is such an anti-labor movement, yet they have always negotiated for it themselves,” said Shirley Knight, assistant state director for the National Federation of Independent Business. “They are against it because it lessens their bargaining chip when they sit down at the table with managers.”
Nunez acknowledged that unions have used daily overtime as a bargaining chip in the past, but that it is “ridiculous” to say that it is the main reason why labor groups are opposed to a change in state law.
“No one is going to deny the fact that it is a minus for organized labor when it comes time for labor to negotiate their contracts,” Nunez said. “But this is a responsibility where we feel we have to defend the rights of workers.”
The new law likely will go into effect on Jan. 1, 1998, following a 60-day period during which the state will inform employers of the new law.
Two bills to overturn it currently are in the state Legislature, and labor unions by late last week had filed two lawsuits contesting it.
But a spokesman for the state’s Department of Industrial Relations said the Industrial Welfare Commission is on firm legal footing, and has won similar lawsuits in the past.
Even last week more than eight months before the law is expected to go into effect some local employers were cheering the commission’s decision.
Robert Buchanan, vice president and general manager of Buchanan’s Spoke and Rim Inc., where machinist Barnum works, said that about half of his 20 employees would like to work four-day weeks of 10-hour days, at least on an occasional basis.
“If a guy wants to go and take a doctor’s appointment in the middle of the week and he’s going to miss some time and wants to make some time back, it gives him that advantage,” Buchanan said. “I’m not going to pay him time-and-a-half to make up time.”
But Buchanan said he does not plan to make his employees work longer hours on a permanent basis. “I’m a little fearful of losing some productivity because people get a little tired after the eight-hour mark,” he said.