“My kids come first,” Le’Shawnda Riley, a 26-year old, single mother of four told me. “You can always get another job, but if something happens to your kids, nothing’s going to bring them back,” she lamented.

As a nine-to-five receptionist at a non-profit organization in downtown D.C., Ms. Riley is in an untenable position. She relies on her paycheck to support her family, yet she has to endure the gut-wrenching dilemma of what to do when a child gets sick, needs to go to the dentist, or is performing in a school play she’d like to attend. She is in a bind: her job does not afford her the flexibility to take ‘compensatory time’ in lieu of payment for overtime hours worked, and it is difficult, time-consuming and costly to secure quality child care in Washington. What’s a working mother to do?

The story of Ms. Riley, who has not received a dime of child support since having her children, is appalling yet typical. Many women are not offered workplace flexibility options that could better facilitate balance between work and family. It’s not the employers’ fault; it’s against the law to provide comp time for hourly workers in the private sector. This problem is magnified in one-parent households, where the wage earner literally needs to choose between keeping food on the table and tending to the needs of their children. What kind of choice is that?

There is a glimpse of relief in the Family Time Flexibility Act, recently introduced by Rep. Judy Biggert (R-IL). This bill would allow private sector workers the option of negotiating with their employer to choose comp time or overtime pay, a benefit that has been enjoyed by federal, state, and local public sector workers for years. Since 1977, federal workers have been able to take advantage of this benefit, and state and local public workers since 1985. The bill would match public sector workers’ comp time provision of time-and-a-half, meaning for every hour of overtime, the employee is entitled to an hour-and-a-half of either pay or comp time. Choosing comp time in lieu of overtime pay can’t be forced on employees.

Representative Biggert’s bill amends the 1938, (yes, 1938), Fair Labor Standards Act. The Fair Labor Standards Act needs to be brought into this century. It was written to reflect the workforce during an era when most women did not work outside the home. Needless to say, the composition of the labor force has changed and the world has changed. Today’s families face grave challenges, such as dealing with violence in schools, drug addiction, and a justified apprehension about the safety of their neighborhoods. If there were ever a time when children need parents, it is now. Women embrace this belief: 81 percent of women favor compensatory time as an option for greater workforce flexibility, according to the Employment Policy Foundation. However, this is merely a pipedream for some. People are working more and spending less time with their families: according to the International Labor Organization, Americans are working 1978 hours per year compared to 1,779 hours in 1973.

Private sector hourly wage earners cannot take comp time to attend to the needs of their families until the Fair Labor Standards Act is amended. So, why isn’t the Family Time Flexibility Act being rubber-stamped through Congress?

Picture this: an arm wrestling contest between the labor unions and working mothers — and guess who’s on the side of labor unions? Feminist groups such as N.O.W who purport to be pro-woman. The unions and feminist groups are using scare tactics to imply that the Family Time Flexibility Act would force employees to work longer hours for less pay and will lose even more control over time spent at work. It’s not about control. It’s about choices.

Not all labor unions are anti-mother. In testimony before the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, Dennis Slocomb, the Executive Vice President and Legislative Director of the International Union of Police Associations (IUPA) stated our members want, need, and appreciate the Congressional comp time provision. It allows them to work for compensatory time in lieu of cash overtime which then allows them some control over their schedule ? time for family, relief of stress, a day of fishing, a PTA meeting or a ball game comp time is important to the survival of a street level cop.  

What is it going to take to provide working single mothers, like Le’Shawnda Riley, the flexibility she deserves? She’s not asking for anything more than to be there for her children. Congress should give her a break.

Deborah Perry is a Senior Fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum, and co-author with Dr. Julianne Malveaux of Unfinished Business: A Democrat and a Republican Take on the 10 Most Important Issues Women Face.