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Dems want to give government power over company work schedules

FILE - In this May 20, 2014, file photo, Rev. Peter Heltzel prays during a rally for a higher minimum wage outside a McDonald's restaurant at the Empire State Plaza concourse in Albany, N.Y. The minimum wage has emerged as perhaps the top issue of a newly emboldened, urban liberal movement that in many places is led not by governors or state lawmakers but by local leaders backed by organized fast food workers. After years of grappling with state and federal budget cuts, mayors and city councils are pushing back against state and federal officials who they say don’t understand the income inequality of 21st-century American cities. (AP Photo/Mike Groll, File) AP Photo/Mike Groll, File\n

Democrats in the House and Senate are proposing new changes to the law that would allow workers to make requests about their work schedule without fear of retaliation from their bosses, and in some cases would require companies to accept these requests.

The Schedules That Work Act would also allow the Department of Labor to investigate when companies fail to adhere to these new rules. That includes subpoena power, and the power to force companies to pay workers damages when they are found to be in violation.

Democrats want to ensure food service workers like these in New York have the power to request schedule changes, and have proposed a bill allowing federal enforcement of that right. (AP Photo/Mike Groll, File)

The bill was introduced by Sens. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), and by Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) and more than two dozen other Democrats in the House.

Under their bill, workers would have a right to make requests about their schedules, and companies would be prohibited from retaliating against them. The bill would require companies to consider these requests and provide an explanation if they are denied.

"Certain requests will have some extra consideration: if an employee makes a request because of caregiving duties, to deal with a serious health condition, to take a career-related training or education course, or to meet the demands of a second job in the case of part-time workers, then an employer must have a bona fide business reason to deny the request," Harkin said.

The bill would also require companies to pay retail, food service and janitorial workers when they're required to report in or be on call. Harkin said for example that if a worker is scheduled for at least four hours and reports in, he must be paid for those hours.

The Labor Department would have the authority to enforce these rules under the Fair Labor Standards Act. It would require companies to keep records of compliance, and allow Labor to inspect those records once per year, or more frequently if a violation is suspected.

Harkin said the bill is needed because workers in the service industries in particular can be given erratic schedules designed without their input, which can keep them from family events and can make it hard to predict their income.

"Schedules are often made with no input from workers or consideration for family needs or even sleep time," Harkin said Tuesday. "A worker may have 8 hours of work one week, 24 hours the next week, and no hours for the next two weeks.

"These abusive scheduling practices mean that workers often can't predict their income, which makes it very difficult to budget and pay bills. It also wreaks havoc on family life. Working parents can't be home for family dinner, help with afternoon homework, or put kids to bed."

But Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) criticized the bill Wednesday as another potential hurdle to hiring people.

"Democrats seem absolutely determined to make hiring a new employee cost so much that he or she becomes a liability rather than an asset, which is a big reason that so many Americans have had such a hard time finding jobs and why this economic recovery has been worse for so many than the Great Recession itself," he said.

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