Legislators aim to tackle wage exceptions

Staff and Wire Reports

Lawmakers are moving quickly to help cities and counties avoid millions of dollars in overtime pay for police, firefighters and some other workers.

The Senate approved a bill on Wednesday to fix a problem that occurred last year when the state enacted a higher minimum wage. The bill now goes to the House for consideration.

The legislation will allow law enforcement and fire protection workers to work longer shifts, such as 24 hours, without overtime pay. That flexible scheduling had been allowed previously without overtime, but the provision was eliminated with higher state minimum wage.

Cities would need to spend $25 million to comply with the overtime pay requirement unless the legislation is passed, according to the New Mexico Municipal League. Counties would have to spend $10 million a year.

Federal law provides exceptions, such as for law enforcement, from a requirement that employees working more than 40 hours a week be paid time and a half their regular rates of pay.

The new bill would make clear that federal exceptions apply to state and local government employees. Those exceptions were left out of legislation last year that increased the state minimum wage from $5.15 to $6.50 an hour effective Jan. 1.

Local officials had voiced concern about the glitch in last year’s law, which they said would strain their budgets and could force drastic scheduling changes.

Portales City Manager Debi Lee said previously the fire department could see an increase of around $18,000 a month in overtime under the new law if it’s not changed.

She said the fire department’s shift scheduling of 24 hours on and 48 hours off will create a big budget problem.

Clovis Fire Chief Ray Westerman previously reported his department has a 14-day, 106-hour work period, meaning personnel must exceed 53 hours a week to get overtime pay.

Under the new law, Clovis firefighters would average a minimum of 13 hours overtime per week.
Randy Vanvlack, general council for the New Mexico Municipal League said in December his organization was planning to lobby legislators for the law to be rewritten.

“Cities aren’t going to be able to absorb that, so they’re going to have to cut back to 40-hour weeks and do away with their flexible schedules,” he said.

Senate President Pro Tem Tim Jennings, D-Roswell, warned that local governments might have to lay off workers to cover the higher wage costs unless corrective legislation was approved.
“It’s going to create a lot of havoc in our communities because of the amount of money that they’re either going to have to come up somewhere — either raise the taxes to maintain the levels of service that are in those communities or they’re going to have to lower the number of individuals they are paying,” said Jennings.

Senate GOP Whip Leonard Lee Rawson of Las Cruces opposed the bill, saying the current overtime provision helped boost pay for law enforcement and could help in recruiting and retaining police in some areas of the state.

“By lowering this how do you expect to attract the type of folks we need in law enforcement? We can’t fill them now. In essence when we pass this, we’re lowering the wage for law enforcement,” said Rawson.

If the legislation is enacted, Jennings said, governments still could enter into labor agreements with their police or firefighters to pay overtime.

The state minimum wage will increase to $7.50 starting in January 2009. The federal minimum wage rose to $5.85 an hour in July and goes up to $6.55 an hour on July 24, 2008, and to $7.25 an hour starting July 24, 2009.

Employers must pay whichever minimum wage is higher, the federal or the state rate, according to the Labor Department.

The bill passed the Senate 37-2 and was sent to the House. Rawson and Sen. Clinton Harden, R-Clovis, voted against the measure.

Lawmakers are fast-tracking the legislation in hopes of getting it passed this week and then quickly signed into law by the governor.

The Senate took up the measure on the second day of the legislative session, bringing it up for debate without having it first considered by committees.

The legislation will allow:
• Fire protection, law enforcement and correctional employees to work longer shifts and not be subject to overtime pay. That flexible scheduling had been allowed previously without overtime, but the provision was eliminated last year when a state minimum wage change was enacted.
• State and local governments to offer compensatory time rather than cash for working overtime. Unless the bill is enacted, the Legislature and state agencies will have to pay overtime rather than “comp time” for some staff.