Overtime law vexes county

The new minimum wage law requires the payment of overtime hours to emergency workers.
Friday, May 25, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 4:24 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

The Missouri legislature’s failure to fix a glitch in the new minimum wage law, approved by voters as Proposition B in November, could cost Boone County up to half a million dollars in extra overtime pay.

An emergency bill that the legislature failed to pass before ending its session last Friday would have reinstated a federal overtime exemption for emergency services workers. The minimum-wage law as approved by voters did not include language that would exempt them and other kinds of workers from being paid overtime rates for working more than 40 hours per week. Because emergency workers often work more than that per week, the law could cause police and fire departments throughout Missouri to exceed their budgets.

The amendment to the proposition as originally written by Sen. John Loudon, R-St. Louis County, would have fixed the loophole but was changed in committee to include a provision that would have reduced the minimum wage of tipped employees to $2.13 per hour and eliminated the provision that links future minimum wages to the consumer price index.

Boone County Sheriff Dwayne Carey said he couldn’t estimate exactly how much overtime some deputies work. “What people need to understand is that our job is not an 8-to-5 one,” he said.

For now, he said, the department is waiting to see the outcome of several legal actions challenging the new law that have been taken throughout the state.

“What we are doing with our employees is keeping track of the money that would be owed to them if this does not get fixed,” Carey said. The department will be prepared to pay what the law requires, but he said it would be a tremendous burden. The department has projected that it could cost the county between $400,000 and $500,000 to pay overtime .

Columbia Police Chief Randy Boehm said that for now, the department is taking no action to prepare for complying with the new law because the city’s attorney advised him that it does not apply to municipalities. “But, we were still hoping that this fix would be made just so that it makes everything clear,” he said.

“It did seem to be a fairly simple fix, and we are obviously disappointed that it didn’t happen,” Boehm said. “There is the potential for it to cause significant issues in the public safety arena statewide.”

Boehm said it is not unusual for a police officer to work between 50 and 60 hours per week.

Columbia City Attorney Fred Boeckmann said that for the change to apply to the city, the legislation would have had to specifically addressed municipal corporations.

“There are a number of appellate cases saying that if the legislation wants to include municipal corporations that it has to spell that out instead of just using corporations (in the language),” Boeckmann said.

Rep. Michael Frame, D-Eureka, a supporter of the bill, said he is concerned about political attempts to change the original intent of the amendment and remove elements of the proposition that voters approved by a 3-1 margin last November.

“The truth of the matter is that the Republicans had a political agenda that was to defeat the consumer price indexing that the voters put on (the bill) and also to exempt restaurant owners’ employees from the legislation, and they held our first responders as political pawns to carry out their agenda,” Frame said. “I believe in some cases (police and fire departments) are paying (the overtime rate), in other cases they are not paying it and crossing their fingers that their employees aren’t suing them.”

Rep. Shannon Cooper, R-Clinton, chairman of the committee in which the bill was changed, could not be reached for comment.

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