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Police, firefighters look to courts to fix wage glitch

After remedies failed in the legislature, they await a ruling in a suit filed in January for an exemption to the new wage law.
Monday, May 28, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 9:42 a.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

JEFFERSON CITY — It’s kind of like when a child requests money from Mom and gets turned down. He then runs through the house and tries again with Dad, hoping for a better response.

That’s the sort of technique Missouri police and firefighters are resorting to these days. They’re seeking a fix for a problem with the minimum wage law that voters overwhelmingly approved in November.

Most expected lawmakers to deal with the problem this year, but nothing happened, so now attention turns to a lawsuit filed in January to achieve the same result.

The ballot measure raised the state’s minimum wage from $5.15 to $6.50 an hour as of Jan. 1, with annual inflationary adjustments to follow.

But the measure inadvertently lacked reference to federal overtime rules that had allowed some people to work more than 40 hours a week without triggering overtime pay. Many firefighters and police work 24-hour or 12-hour shifts, racking up more than 40 hours some weeks.

The lawsuit seeks an injunction, retroactive to Jan. 1, against enforcing the new minimum wage law for local governments. It alleges the state Labor and Industrial Relations Department wrongly interpreted the new minimum wage law to apply to police.

The suit also claims that the law unconstitutionally imposes new costs on local governments without providing state money for them and that the minimum wage cannot constitutionally be required for cities and counties with charter forms of government.

The attorney general’s office, which is defending the department, responds that the ballot language makes no exception for local governments and that the provision barring unfunded requirements applies to those imposed by lawmakers, not voters.

The group that wrote the ballot language acknowledges the oversight and supports fixing it through legislation.

While a bill to do so cleared the Senate in February without a dissenting vote, it got stuck in the House. Key House leaders wanted to make other changes such as repealing the annual inflation adjustment and bringing pay for tipped employees such as waiters back to the federal rate of $2.13 an hour plus tips. The bill never reached a vote in the House.

When a House committee expanded the bill in April, Rep. Shannon Cooper, R-Clinton, said fire departments aren’t the only sector of society that should benefit from changes to the law.

“They don’t need any more help than the restaurant folks and retailers do,” he said.

Police and firefighters paint doomsday scenarios, saying if nothing is done, public safety will suffer as departments make room for unexpected overtime costs in their budgets by cutting shifts and having less equipment, increasing response times.

Another option is seeking local tax increases to fund the increased overtime and maintain current service.

The Monarch Fire Protection District in the St. Louis area has built up overtime costs of $43,000 a week and has started cutting employee pay, its lobbyist David Klarich said.

Some fire departments and legislators have called on Gov. Matt Blunt to convene a special session to restore the overtime exemption.

“At this point there’s an intensity that’s felt by all of my fire protection districts because of the consequences,” Klarich said. This is serious. It should have been easily remedied. Because it has not been, we need to pursue whatever options are available.”

Blunt doesn’t plan to bring lawmakers back to fix the problem, noting the ballot measure passed with about 76 percent support, and the corrective legislation hit roadblocks in the House.

“I’d be very reluctant to call a special session to change something that Missourians just approved by such an overwhelming margin,” he said. “I’m for this technical fix. Obviously some members of the General Assembly have concerns about this technical fix. I would point out that it’s not the members of the General Assembly’s fault that we’re in this situation.”

The lawsuit hasn’t progressed much in recent months, as everyone waited to see if legislators would take care of the problem.

“We were hoping that the whole thing would be mooted by the legislation,” said attorney Mark Mittleman, who represents Chesterfield, one of more than a dozen plaintiffs suing the state Department of Labor and Industrial Relations. “Since that legislation did not pass, we have to go forward with our original allegations.”

Mittleman said attorneys are preparing to file more papers with the court soon and are working to schedule arguments before a Cole County judge.


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