Kessler urges wage bill signature

WHEELING – West Virginia Senate President Jeff Kessler is urging Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin to sign the state’s minimum wage increase into law, and possibly call lawmakers into special session later to address concerns the measure will dramatically change the way businesses pay overtime to their employees.

The legislation, House Bill 4283, would raise the state’s minimum hourly wage from $7.25 to $8.75 over two years. But according to Brian Peterson, a labor and employment attorney for the Bowles Rice law firm in Martinsburg, it also would require all employers in the state with six or more workers to comply with new overtime requirements – which he believes are broad enough to include typically exempt employees such as municipal firefighters, commissioned sales employees and those who make $100,000 or more per year.

But Kessler, D-Glen Dale, believes the overwhelming support for the bill – a total of six members of either house voted against it – sent a clear signal that something needed to be done about the minimum wage, and he doesn’t believe concerns over the bill are serious enough to warrant a governor’s veto. He said he would support Tomblin calling for a special session – perhaps during interim meetings in May – to clean up any language in the bill that has unintended consequences for employers.

“It’s really an easy fix. If you veto the whole thing, you’re back to square one,” Kessler said.

Peterson, however, has some concerns with that approach. If the governor signs the bill into law, he said, companies must prepare for it to take effect as written – even with the promise of a special session.

And with the measure set to go into effect June 6, “we’re certainly on a tight timeline,” Peterson said.

Peterson originally raised red flags over the minimum wage bill in an employment alert sent out last week. The National Employment Law Project released a memo Monday disputing Peterson’s findings, asserting HB 4283 does nothing to change the 19 exemptions written into state overtime law for certain classes of employees.

According to Peterson, that’s technically true. But what will go away, he said, is employers’ ability to take advantage of more than 50 other exemptions in the federal Fair Labor Standards Act.

West Virginia law essentially allows its workers to be covered under more up-to-date federal regulations by providing that the state’s minimum wage and overtime laws don’t apply to employers where 80 percent of workers or more are covered under the Fair Labor Standards Act. But the pending minimum wage bill removes that language, meaning virtually all employers would become subject to the more stringent state standards.

“The exemptions available to employers will be very few if this law goes into effect,” Peterson said.

On Thursday, the Wheeling Area Chamber of Commerce came out in opposition to the minimum wage bill, asking Tomblin to veto it. Its effects would be particularly harmful to businesses near the state’s borders, said chamber President Terry Sterling.

“If you let that bill become law, it would hinder the ability of organizations like the chamber, and West Virginia in general, to recruit businesses to the state and retain those already here,” he wrote. “West Virginia would become an outlier among the states for economic development and job creation.”

Kessler said he was puzzled as to why none of these issues surrounding the minimum wage bill were raised during the regular session. He said some who simply don’t like the idea of giving minimum wage workers a raise may be trying a last-ditch effort to kill it by claiming “the sky is falling.”

“This bill didn’t just pop out of the sky,” Kessler said. “It was introduced very early in the session and nobody raised a concern or complaint. … If they had this information all along, where were they on day one? … I’m disturbed by that, quite frankly.”

Tomblin’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday.