By Sharna Johnson: CNJ staff writer
An element of the new state minimum wage law could cost local governments tens of thousands of dollars in overtime pay and is drawing opposition from city officials across the state.
The new law, effective Jan. 1, cements a work period as 40 hours in seven days with no exceptions and will force government to pay public safety workers overtime where they didn’t have to before or cut schedules, according to Randy Vanvlack, general council for the New Mexico Municipal League.
Under exemptions in the previous state minimum wage law, governments were able to create alternate schedules for public safety workers. That wording was left out of the new state minimum wage law, in effect placing all employees on the same work period, said Vanvlack, whose organization represents all 102 incorporated municipalities in the state, including Clovis and Portales.
Legislation to raise the minimum wage from $5.15 to $6.50 by Jan. 1 — and to $7.50 by 2009 — was passed in March. The seven-page bill defines various types of employment and covers everything from overtime to tips and types of wage compensation.
Portales is bracing for the impact to its budget, City Manager Debi Lee said.
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.
“We think we can do it with very minimal effect to response, we just won’t have as large a shift as we would like,” Lee said of the fire department. “The scary part is the calls for service are up.”
Lee said Fire Chief John Bridges has worked out a plan to deal with the change on a short-term basis that will bring the overtime down to $4,000.
“It will have a direct affect on the delivery of our services,” Bridges said. “Response issues will be dealt with, we’re going to make the calls, but its going to be tough.”
Lee said her concern is the possible loss of firefighters who have built their lives and other sources of livelihood around the 24-on 48-off schedule.
Lee also said several departments, including the Portales Police Department, regularly utilize “comp time” to compensate employees for extra hours that might be put in on an emergency such as a homicide or a water main break.
Clovis Fire Chief Ray Westerman said 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 of overtime per week.
Clovis will comply in January and is monitoring opposition to the bill, City Manager Joe Thomas said.
Officials are still evaluating the situation, but the fire department will likely be the largest area of impact, he said, since police are already working a 40-hour week. And city employees will lose the option of earning compensatory time in lieu of overtime pay.
Officials have not calculated the affect on the budget, he said, because they were expecting legislators would move to correct the law.
Westerman said he expects fire departments across the state to lobby to keep the bill the way it is.
He said firefighters should be paid at the same standard as any other employee and should be compensated for extra time spent away
from their families.
He said his personnel are cautiously optimistic and feel the law brings them closer to equality.
Vanvlack said his organization has drafted a revised bill to present legislators to get the exemptions added back into law.
Cities across the state are, like Portales, having to re-evaluate their schedules and budgets, he said.
“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.
Sen. Clint Harden, R-Clovis, said the Legislature meets for a budget session in January.
For a revised bill to be heard during the coming session, it would require submission with an executive message from the governor.
Otherwise, the matter can not be considered by the Legislature until January 2009, he said.
— Freedom New Mexico’s Karl Terry contributed to this report.