By Katrina Trinko
In April 2009, Martha Roby wasn't sure she could juggle being a House member with raising her toddler daughter and baby son. As attracted as she was to the idea of representing Alabama's second district in Congress, Roby -- at the time, a city council member in Montgomery, Ala. -- had enough doubts that she decided to make a trip to D.C. with her husband, Riley, to "vet whether or not this was really what we wanted to do."
They met with plenty of people on the Hill, including Representative Shelley Moore Capito (R., W.V.), who encouraged Roby. But after two days in D.C., Roby felt "mentally exhausted" and still unsure about whether she should run.
Then Roby and her husband met Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R., Wash.). McMorris Rodgers had a toddler (in 2010, she would have another child) and knew firsthand the difficulties Roby would face if elected.
"She said, "You can do it. You absolutely can do this. I have a small child. You can do this,'" Roby recounts.
And for her, that was the crucial encouragement that committed her to running. "All it took at that point was a mom with a small child to encourage me and say you can do this," she remembers. A month later, Roby announced her congressional run.
Now Roby, a sophomore House member, is turning her focus to legislation that would make lives easier for working moms and dads: the Working Families Flexibility Act. Roby's bill would allow employers to give employees not exempt from the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 the option to voluntarily exchange overtime hours for comp time instead of getting paid time and a half.
"This bill just makes sense," Roby says, citing a dad who wants to be available certain hours so he can coach his child's soccer team. "It's his overtime, he should be able to choose," Roby says. "If he wants to use it for time, if time is more precious to him than the cash payments for a certain number of hours, then let him utilize that. But if money is more important after a certain threshold for him, then that's his choice. He can work that out with his employer."
Since 1985, public-sector employees paid by the hour have been able to do this. And the bill has protections to ensure that employers don't pressure employees into picking comp time rather than overtime payment. House majority leader Eric Cantor, who touted the policy in his "Make Life Work" speech in February at the American Enterprise Institute, says the bill won't allow employers to bully employees into picking comp time over payments. "There are plenty of safeguards against that in the language of the bill," he says. "It is illegal for them to do that. There are enforcement mechanisms in the bill."
"This has been working in the public sector now since 1985," he adds. "Most public-sector employees have this, and frankly, I would note that this benefit is included in many of the public-sector union collective-bargaining agreements."
Roby stresses that employees can also change their minds if they haven't used the comp time and can request overtime cash payment instead. Furthermore, an employee has to affirmatively ask to use the overtime toward additional comp time. The bill's been floating around Congress for many years, so there have been measures added to it in response to prior concerns. "The Democrats have their talking points in opposition to this bill, and even though the actual black and white of the law has been perfected to quash some of those arguments, their talking points have remained the same," Roby says. "So there is a disconnect between reality and the talking points."
Roby herself has found a way to balance congressional responsibilities and child care. During weeks that Congress is in, her husband is in Alabama with the children. And during her weeks at home, she arranges her schedule so that she can attend activities like her daughter's afternoon swimming practice.
In Roby's office, the first thing you see is a huge framed American flag, with the red stripes and white stars made out of children's handprints in paint. "Handmade," reads the gold plaque next to the painting, "by Margaret and George Roby." A year ago, Roby had both kids with her during spring break. ("We dubbed it Riley's spring break," Roby remembers, referring to her husband.) She's taken her children, who are now four and nearly eight, on the House floor.
"Everybody loves when kids are on the floor -- as long as it's not a moment of silence or the like, it tends to be okay," Roby says. And when the legislative process fails to fascinate, "they can hang out in the cloakroom and eat ice cream."
Margaret, in particular, enjoys spending time helping her mom in Congress. "When Margaret's up here, she'll go with me to all my meetings. She goes to conference with me. She's kind of my little sidekick. Margaret says she's the assistant to the staff assistant," Roby laughs. And like any good staffer, Margaret understood what she needed to do to fit in on the Hill scene: "She made her own little [business] cards" out of notepaper.
"She'll sit at the desk that our summer interns use," Roby explains. Young Margaret's D.C. experience is apparently paying dividends: "One of her spelling words last week was legislation, and they're learning about things in school that she gets to see me do." Now Roby just wants to make sure that other parents have that flexibility, too, to spend time with their kids when they want to.