In Wisconsin, Worker Advocates Rue Demise of Guaranteed Day Off

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By Martha C. White

Working for the weekend? Not in Wisconsin

Wisconsin’s governor and newly declared Republican presidential candidate Scott Walker's new two-year budget for the state was met with dismay by workers' rights groups, thanks to an amendment that could allow retailers and manufacturers work their employees for a week straight with no days off.

Pro-labor groups were already unhappy with the governor, who engaged in a protracted battle with public sector labor unions in 2012 that took away their collective bargaining rights, a fight that prompted a recall election in which Walker ultimately prevailed.

Removal of the provision guaranteeing a day off per week means that employers could theoretically request that workers volunteer to put in seven-day weeks year round, as long as they receive federally mandated overtime pay.

“This is taking us literally 100 years backwards,” said Martha De La Rosa, state director of 9to5 Wisconsin, an advocacy group.

Union members protest inside the Wisconsin State Capitol on March 4, 2011 in Madison,Wisconsin, against Gov. Scott Walker's attempt to push through a bill that would restrict collective bargaining for most government workers in the state.Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

The amendment, which dismantles a rule that had been in place since 1927, is just the latest push in the Walker administration’s efforts to roll back worker protections, she said. The governor, who has wide latitude to veto items in the budget passed by the legislature last week, could have excised the language but chose not to do so — a stance some pro-labor experts have suggested was a strategic move aimed at bolstering his reputation prior to his announcement that he would seek the Republican presidential nomination in 2016.

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“It’s a really bad proposal,” De La Rosa said. “Workers deserve to be able to take time off.”

Wisconsin law previously stipulated that most workers in manufacturing and retail industries were required at least one 24-hour rest period in each calendar week.

The state’s Department of Workforce Development notes on its website that this didn’t necessarily mean people couldn’t work seven days in a row. For example, say the first day of the month was a Sunday. A worker could have that day off, work the remainder of that first week then go to work the following Sunday, and work through nearly all of the next week before getting a day off the following Saturday, Companies also could apply for a waiver if they were heading into a busy season or were overwhelmed with a rush of orders.

The new amendment’s proponents say it gives workers and companies more flexibility by taking away the need for that paperwork.

“If a worker would prefer to work a longer week to earn overtime, he or she will now be able to do so,” Nicole Kaeding, budget analyst at the Cato Institute, a right-leaning think tank that has applauded Walker's victories against labor unions, said via email. “He or she should be able to make that decision without asking for permission from the government.”

Trade group and supporter Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce pointed out that 733 waivers have been requested in the past five years, and each was approved.

“The fact that they get routinely approved, 100 percent of the time in fact, is evidence that they are unnecessary,” Chris Reader, the group’s director of health and human resources policy, said via email. “No other industry in Wisconsin has the requirement for a day off per week, and the majority of states do not have such a requirement,” he added.

"If we take this process away we won’t know what’s happening inside unless the workers tell us.”

But De La Rosa argued that the waiver approval process, even if it was cursory, was an important measure of how companies treated their employees.

“We won’t have a clue if employers are abusing this,” she said. “(The waiver requirement) is a paper trail. It’s a way of tracking it. If we take this process away we won’t know what’s happening inside unless the workers tell us.” she said.

Reader, the spokesman for the manufacturers group, noted that the law requires employees to volunteer to give up their day off, but some labor scholars expressed skepticism that this ideal would work in reality, given the power dynamic between workers and bosses.

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“There may be workers who want to work more hours … but on the other hand, there are people who don’t want to have that extra time imposed,” said Donald Kettl, a professor of public policy at the University of Maryland and former director of the University of Wisconsin’s Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs. “(They) may feel they have no choice but to accept or put their job at risk. For many workers, that’s not much of a choice of all.”

“Economists have this notion that the labor market can work all this out,” said Harry Holzer, a professor of public policy at Georgetown University. “In the real world that’s often hard for these people to do. If the workers are afraid of offending the employer, afraid of being fired in retaliation, it may not be realistic to think that the worker is going to challenge it.”

In particular, low-income workers and those supporting families might not have the financial stability to easily switch jobs, Holzer said. “Especially in a labor market that still has some slack, it’s not so easy to find work elsewhere,” he said.