Tomblin mum on minimum wage bill

WHEELING – Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin is keeping his thoughts close to the vest as he considers whether to sign a bill increasing West Virginia’s minimum wage from $7.25 per hour to $8.75 by 2016.

Tomblin has until Tuesday – 15 days following the close of the legislative session, excluding Sundays – to sign or veto the roughly 80 bills that remained on his desk as of Friday afternoon, including the minimum wage measure. If he takes no action on a bill, it automatically becomes law after that date.

Tomblin’s office has not responded to several requests for comment on the minimum wage bill, which has become controversial in recent weeks after relatively smooth sailing through both houses of the Legislature during the regular session.

Last week, labor and employment attorney Brian Peterson of the Bowles Rice law firm highlighted possible consequences of the legislation that reach far beyond raising the minimum wage by forcing most companies to pay overtime to virtually all their employees – even firefighters, commissioned sales employees and workers making $100,000 or more per year who typically are exempt from overtime requirements, he believes.

Wheeling Mayor Andy McKenzie – a former state senator – joined Peterson in calling for Tomblin to veto the bill. He said the legislation as presented could cost the city between $300,000 and $400,000 in additional expenses. It would also require the city to resubmit its budget to account for those additional funds.

McKenzie said if the bill is meant to raise the minimum wage, it should be reworked to state that and only that.

On Thursday, Senate President Jeff Kessler, D-Glen Dale, said he wants Tomblin to sign the bill. If there are any issues in it that need to be worked out, he believes that should be done during a special session rather than going “back to square one” if Tomblin vetoes the measure.

He suggested the last-minute revelations about impacts to overtime may be a desperate attempt to scuttle the bill by “raising the specter that the sky is falling.”

“I’m a lawyer. One hundred different lawyers can have 100 different opinions,” Kessler said. “I’ve got lawyers saying he (Peterson) is off the wall, and it’s not true.”

Peterson said a call for a special session would do little to provide certainty to companies already scrambling to prepare for the minimum wage legislation to take effect June 6. Businesses can’t operate under an assumption that changes will be made, he said, and would have to prepare for the bill to take effect as written.

When asked about the possibility of creating uncertainty for businesses, Kessler said Friday he believes Tomblin could easily settle things by requesting an advisory opinion from the state Division of Labor. He is confident they would find, for example, that municipal firefighters do fall under the overtime exemption because they are employees of a political subdivision of the state, and that the law would not apply to most of the private sector workers about whom Peterson raised concern because they are not hourly employees.

“They’re the ones who have to enforce (the minimum wage law), so the business community has no problem,” Kessler said of the Division of Labor. “If they do suggest to the contrary, it’s a very simple fix.”

Even with the Tuesday deadline looming, Kessler said there’s plenty of time to get an opinion from the Division of Labor.

“If the governor wanted one, he could probably have it by Monday,” he said.