House passes comp time bill, Senate now has the action

Jun 12, 2017

By Tonda F. Rush

General Counsel and Public Policy Director | NNA

WASHINGTON—Newspaper staffs might soon acquire the ability to earn comp time from those late nights covering elections and waiting for the winning touchdown at a high school game.

In May, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Working Families Flexibility Act of 2017. The bill, HR 1180, now awaits action on the Senate floor. The primary sponsor was Rep. Martha Roby, R-AL. Passage occurred mostly along party lines with most Democrats voting against the bill.

The bill would create a right under the Fair Labor Standards Act that is already available to many government employees but has been illegal for private employers and employees: the ability to be compensated by additional time off when non-exempt staff work more than 40 hours a week.

Currently, non-exempt employees may be compensated only with money, paid at a rate of the hourly wage plus 50 percent of that wage, for every hour worked over 40 in a week. But revenue-strapped newspapers often do not have the cash to pay for overtime, so they simply hold staff to the 40-hour week. That deprives the staff of the ability to follow stories to their conclusions and prevents communities from receiving news it could have used.

The new legislation would allow a staffer and the boss to agree to compensation by time off, at the rate of 150 percent (time and a half) of every overtime hour worked, to be taken at another time in the calendar year. That would enable staffs to complete their work if it went into overtime and reclaim lost hours with extra vacation around holidays or when the newspaper week is slow. Employees could bank up to 160 hours. Unused comp time left over at the end of a designated 12-month period would be paid off at the overtime rate. Employers could also elect during the year to buy back a portion of the comp time if banked time exceeded 80 hours, but they would have to provide the employee 30-days’notice.

The bill prohibits employers from coercing employees to sign comp time agreements or from forcing employees to use the comp time. Unused time at the end of a staffer’s employment would be paid off by the employer. It also would not require employers to offer comp time agreements. In the end, the boss and staffer would have to agree on terms for the bill to kick in.

National Newspaper Association President Matthew Paxton IV, publisher of The News-Gazette in Lexington, VA, said he was pleased that the House enacted the bill so early in the 115th Congress. The Senate is expected to take much longer to address comp time.

“NNA has sought comp time allowances for staff for many years. Community newspapers have unique problems with the labor laws. We have late-breaking stories and weekend sports, and demanding readers who want to know what is going on in town. But few newspapers have the budget for unlimited overtime. And our staffs don’t like being told they can’t cover a story when their news noses tell them it is important. I would say most would appreciate having a little longer vacation to recharge their engines after putting in extra hours. This bill has plenty of protections against abuse. It seems to NNA that it is a pretty common sense solution to a serious problem for newspapers,” he said.

NNA is urging members to contact their senators to urge acceptance of the comp time bill.