WHEELING - Although West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's promise to call the Legislature into special session to fix problems with the minimum wage bill he signed into law Tuesday has those affected hopeful for relief, they know the outcome remains far from certain.
Approved by a wide margin in both houses, House Bill 4283 raises the floor for hourly wages from $7.25 to $8.75 over two years - but has also spawned concerns the measure will open a floodgate of costly new overtime obligations for both municipalities and private employers. Beginning June 6, typically exempt classes of workers, such as municipal firefighters, commissioned sales employees and those making $100,000 or more per year would become covered under state overtime law.
After signing the bill, Tomblin promised to convene a special session to address those concerns during legislative interim meetings that begin May 19 - less than three weeks before the law is set to go into effect.
Wheeling Mayor Andy McKenzie believes forcing the city to pay time and a half to its firefighters for hours worked beyond 40 per week would create a $300,000 hole in the city's budget if allowed to take effect as written. He's glad to see that Tomblin, Senate President Jeff Kessler, D-Glen Dale, and House Speaker Tim Miley, D-Harrison, appear to be on the same page when it comes to fixing the bill.
But having served as a state senator for 12 years prior to being elected mayor of Wheeling, McKenzie knows nothing is certain when it comes to getting a majority of both houses of the Legislature to agree.
"There's a lot of 'what ifs' ... ," McKenzie said. "As long as they fix it, everybody goes home happy. If the Legislature meets and cannot come to terms, then we have a problem."
Labor and employment attorney Brian Peterson of the Bowles Rice law firm in Martinsburg, who brought the concerns to light last month, said Tomblin's statement is "certainly encouraging," but noted it's now a game of wait-and-see for cities and businesses who would be affected.
"It's not the position that most of them would have wanted to be in, certainly. ... We'll just have to go with plan B, which is to urge the Legislature to fix the bill," Peterson said.
According to Peterson, the law also would impact hospitals by removing an exemption that allows them to calculate overtime pay differently, paying time and a half only for hours worked beyond eight in a single day or 80 in a two-week period.
Officials at both Wheeling Hospital and Ohio Valley Medical Center said they would not be affected, as they already operate under the 40-hour-per-week overtime standard for non-exempt employees.
Ultimately, McKenzie said he wouldn't be surprised if the governor's proposal to fix the bill passes both houses unanimously. But he said he would have preferred Tomblin provide some certainty by vetoing a bill that does things it wasn't intended to do.
McKenzie believes the Legislature was in so much of a hurry to benefit 127,000 West Virginians by raising the minimum wage that they enacted a law that stands to hurt virtually every taxpayer in the state if cities are forced to raise taxes or cut services in order to comply.
"The very people they were trying to help now are harmed," he said.