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April 21, 2003
Public-Employee Leaders Warn About Comp-Time Bill
Wit
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h Republicans in Congress once again introducing legislation that would allow employees to take time off for overtime rather than money, supporters of the idea are pointing to its track record in public sector, where agencies have been allowed to bank time for the past 18 years.

But the leaders of two government employee groups in Houston have told Houston Chronicle columnist L.M. Sixel that their experience has been anything but successful.

Deputy sheriffs in Harris County can bank up to 240 hours of comp time, but the department is so short-staffed that no one can take it when they want a day or two off, according to Ed Christensen, president of the Harris County Deputies Organization, which has more than 2,000 members.

It's only when a top officer realizes the buildup is too high that deputies are directed to take some time off, he said. "It's not flexible at all," Christensen told Sixel. "It's a damn joke."

The set-up lets the county get away with hiring fewer employees than it should, he said, since the current employees just end up working more overtime. As a result, deputies are quitting to find other jobs.

Sixel notes that Christensen once sued Harris County over the question of whether the employees or the county should choose when to take the banked time off. He lost the argument when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of Harris County in 1999.

Meanwhile, Steve Williams, president of the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association Local 341, which has 3,400 members, says the fire department is so short-handed that it can't let the firefighters off for holidays and vacations.

Williams himself has more than 720 hours of holiday time banked and said he knows of many colleagues who have 700 hours of vacation time booked that they can't take.

The shortages are so severe that junior employees - those with less than 20 years of service - can only use two to four days of vacation each year, he told Sixel. They're paid for the banked hours when they leave, but by then they've missed family reunions and vacations, he said.

"So you can understand why the firefighters don't want to book their overtime," said Williams. "It would just be more time on the books that we couldn't take."

Sarah F. Pierce, manager of employment policy at the Society of Human Resource Management in Alexandria, Va., called the pending legislation a common-sense idea that's two decades overdue.

She said the comp-time bills introduced by Rep. Judy Biggert, R-Ill., and Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., are family friendly and designed to meet the needs of the 21st century.

Under the proposals, companies could allow employees to accrue up to 160 hours of comp time and take the time off at any time. An employer would have to show it's truly disruptive before refusing a request for time off, Pierce said.

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