Legislature Repairs Minimum Wage Bill

WHEELING – A near-unanimous Legislature passed a bill Wednesday to keep municipal firefighters, commissioned sales employees and other workers exempt from overtime pay requirements under the state’s new minimum wage law.

If the governor signs the bill into law, municipalities around the state would avoid hundreds of thousands of dollars in new obligations to public safety employees, while private employers also would avoid having to pay overtime to employees who make $100,000 or more per year, and hospitals and other health care employers could continue calculating overtime pay using alternative methods.

“It basically puts us back in the position we were in before (the minimum wage bill) was signed into law,” said Brian Peterson, a labor and employment attorney with the Bowles Rice law firm in Martinsburg who brought concerns over the bill to light in March. “I’m sure employers will breathe a sigh of relief.”

The bill passed Wednesday does not exempt employers from paying workers the new minimum wage – $8 per hour beginning next year and $8.75 per hour starting in 2016 – but restores exemptions to overtime pay requirements typically available to employers under federal law. It clarifies that employers where 80 percent or more of workers are covered under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act may continue to operate under those rules, while the original minimum wage bill included no such language.

Following a 91-0 vote in favor of the bill in the House of Delegates Wednesday morning, the Senate voted to suspend constitutional rules that normally require bills to be read three times on three separate days before voting 30-1 to pass the repairs to the minimum wage bill. The legislation now awaits Tomblin’s signature.

All local legislators voted in favor of the bill.

“The business community seemed to be on board with what we did, and we kept the increase in the minimum wage … in place, so the people who are employed at minimum wage will see the benefits,” said Senate President Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall.

Wheeling officials said the minimum wage bill as originally written would have cost them about $300,000 per year in new overtime obligations to firefighters. Firefighters in Wheeling work 56 hours per week – 16 hours more than the typical 40 hours – but are compensated with more time off than other workers.

Mayor Andy McKenzie and City Manager Robert Herron said the legislation passed Wednesday adequately addresses their concerns with the new minimum wage law. McKenzie was in Charleston on Monday for the first day of the special session, and he said he never had a doubt the legislation would get done.

“It would have created a definite concern and a huge burden on the city’s taxpayers,” McKenzie said of the flaws in the original minimum wage bill.

Fixing the minimum wage bill was one of several items listed in Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s call for a special session, which wrapped up today, coinciding with the Legislature’s normal interim meetings. It was their second special session since conclusion of the regular session March 8, the first dealt with balancing the state’s fiscal year 2015 budget.

Another item passed by both houses Wednesday restored about $1 million in funding to social service agencies that Tomblin had cut from the budget through his line-item veto authority. Affected programs included domestic violence prevention and legal service programs, Family Resource Networks and Child Advocacy Networks.

The funds were included as an amendment to Tomblin’s lottery appropriations bill. Kessler said he’s confident Tomblin will sign the bill despite its reversal of his line-item cuts.

“I believe the governor’s on board knowing how strongly the Legislature feels about those programs. … That’s the second time around we’ve done it,” he said.

The Our Children, Our Future organization, which had pushed for restoration of the funding, applauded the Legislature’s action Wednesday.

“Our democracy is working. Kids and families made their voices heard, and lawmakers from both sides of the aisle listened,” said Stephen Smith, a member of the organization’s steering committee. “We congratulate House and Senate leadership for finding a way to make this investment in our state’s future.”