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Tech firms oppose eight-hour workday

High-tech firms are fighting union-backed legislation in California that would revamp overtime laws and let employees vote in secret to change their own work schedules.

High-tech firms are fighting union-backed legislation in California that would revamp overtime laws and let employees vote in secret to change their own work schedules.

The bill by Southern California Democratic Rep. Wally Knox already passed the state Assembly 48 to 30 last week and is expected to clear the Senate and be signed into law by Gov. Gray Davis.

Knox's legislation would require companies in the state to pay hourly employees overtime if they worked more than 8 hours in one workday. Companies now have to pay overtime after 40 hours per week.

Under the current law, employees can work as long as they want during a day--taking sizable breaks or half-days if permitted--but don't get paid overtime as long as they still work just 40 hours per week.

Manufacturers throughout the state oppose the bill, saying it marks the end of the "flexible" workweek. High-tech employers especially like the current system because they can save money on daily overtime, and they argue that it allows their staff to take care of personal business and other matters during the day without much hassle.

"We offer good high-paying jobs, and our employees want flexibility," said Teresa Casazza, executive director of state public policy for the American Electronics Association.

But labor unions are pushing the bill, contending that hourly employees--who often earn lower wages than salaried staff--have been getting shafted out of overtime ever since Gov. Pete Wilson approved legislation a few years ago eliminating the eight-hour workday.

"Eight million California workers who lost daily overtime pay when former Governer Pete Wilson picked their pockets are one step closer to getting their full paychecks back," Art Pulaski, executive secretary-treasurer of the California Labor Federation, said in a statement.

"The new law recognizes today's need for family-friendly flexibility and gives workers the freedom to negotiate time off for teacher conferences, medical appointments, and life's little emergencies," he added.

Amendments passed by the Assembly would allow a three-hour flexible period per week. Any other exemptions or "alternative" workweek plans, however, would have to approved by the state's Industrial Welfare Commission.

Companies say that government intervention in their day-to-day affairs will slow down the so-called New Economy.

"This is just a membership drive for the unions. If an individual employee wants to work four ten-hour days, and that's OK with the company, then they should be able to do it," Casazza said.

Drawing the most fire is a provision that would require a two-thirds anonymous vote by an entire department before a workweek schedule could be changed. The department also would have to wait 45 days before implementing the change.

"Under the 40-hour overtime law, everybody is flowing with each other to get the job done," said Gordon Benhard, chief executive of Elpac, a small electrical manufacturing firm in Orange County that also has plants in Asia and Mexico.

"The state now is enjoying budget surpluses and new business, but there will come a time when California needs to attract and retain business," he added. "And this law will just be an obstacle."

Nonetheless, unions say the bill will protect workers.

"Working families are putting in longer hours for paychecks that bring less home. In this downsized, part-time, temporary employment world, there's no excuse for corporations taking overtime pay away from people who work hard to earn it," stated the labor foundation's Pulaski.