The latest in Wyoming’s long line of anti-labor legislation

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The latest in Wyoming’s long line of anti-labor legislation
Guest column by Kerry Drake
Originally published February 19, 2013 on WyoFile.com

Two bills passed by the Wyoming House and Senate last week are tantamount to state-sanctioned theft of workers’ wages and benefits.

Kerry Drake

Kerry Drake

It’s not surprising, given the state’s long history of anti-labor laws, beginning with the passage of right-to-work legislation 50 years ago. But it is nonetheless outrageous; an intrusion of state government into private business, engineered by members of a party that claims to be against heavy-handed regulation.

House Bill 79, sponsored by Rep. Tim Stubson (R-Casper) allows employers to deny workers pay for their accrued vacation days when they quit or are terminated. The Wyoming attorney general’s office has always held that even if a company has a “use it or lose it” policy on vacation time, workers are entitled to be paid for their unused vacation hours.

Not any more, even if they earned the vacation time. It’s not difficult to imagine a scenario in which a worker has several weeks of vacation time available, but is unable to have time off approved by the company during busy seasons or because of the demands of a job. When that employee leaves, either involuntarily or by choice, all unused vacation time should be considered a benefit that must be paid. HB79, though, allows the employer to simply pocket the money.

“This is wrong,” said Sen. John Hastert (D-Green River) who opposed the bill, which passed 19-11 in the Senate. “If you earn your vacation, that is what it is. If you went there and worked for so many years, you earned that vacation (time).”

Rep. Tim Stubson (R-Casper)

Rep. Tim Stubson (R-Casper)

Unbelievably, the bill’s sponsor said he was surprised at the negative reaction to his handiwork by workers and unions. Stubson actually argued that HB79 is “pro-employee” because employers can only deny payment for accrued vacation time if it is a written policy.

Yes, it’s true that employer and employee must agree how vacation time will be handled. But an employer can effectively make agreeing to the bargain a condition of employment. A potential worker has the right to disagree with the policy, but he or she likely won’t get the job unless they accept the condition.

Rep. Bill Landen (R-Casper) said the measure allows employers to control an “unfunded liability.” But Hastert said employers know exactly how much vacation time has been accrued and should budget for that amount, whether the time is actually taken or not. “It’s not an unknown expense,” he noted.

Supporters maintained that making companies pay workers for large amounts of vacation time they have banked may cause employers to offer fewer vacation days. That’s unlikely, because many companies have figured out ways to keep employees from banking the time off at all.

Some now make vacation time available during a limited time of the year, so an employee who wants to go on vacation before the time is officially released must “borrow” the time off from the company, to be repaid back in the event the worker leaves the job before “earning” those hours.

Increasingly, fewer companies are offering terminated employees any type of severance pay. Taking away their earned vacation pay places them in a deeper economic hole to climb out of, making it even more difficult to survive while searching for another job.

House Bill 112 is a different kind of theft. This bill amounts to a redistribution of wealth, taking money earned by one class of worker and giving it to another. For restaurant owners, it has the huge benefit of significantly reducing their costs.

Rep. Ruth Ann Petroff (R-Jackson)

Rep. Ruth Ann Petroff (R-Jackson)

Sponsored by Rep. Ruth Ann Petroff (R-Jackson) the bill purports to give employers an opportunity to oversee a tip pooling process that is already used by some restaurant workers.

What it actually does, though, is create a system that takes money that wait staff makes in tips and forces them to share it with other staff, such as employees who bus tables, hosts and hostesses.

Dan Neal, executive director of the Equality State Policy Center, criticized the bill for “taking one position’s wages to subsidize other staff,” while restaurants reduce their costs.

Sen. Chris Rothfuss (D-Laramie) created a chart that clearly illustrates why restaurants lobbied for the bill. In the first example, the wait staff — which is paid the state minimum wage for tipped employees of $2.13 per hour — keeps its own tips. The restaurant makes up the difference if an employee’s tips do not bring the amount earned up to the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour.

In the senator’s second example, the tip pooling system redistributes the wealth. This method would allow a restaurant with the same staff size to reduce its salary expenses by a whopping 69 percent. The wait staff would receive only 90 percent of what they earned in the first scenario. Some waiters and waitresses would have to give more net pay back to their employer than they receive as an hourly wage. Meanwhile, bussers and hostesses would earn exactly the same amount of money in both examples.

Pretty nifty for the employers, isn’t it? But I thought most Republicans were against such a redistribution of wealth. In fact, during last year’s presidential campaign, many party leaders said it was socialism. What changed their minds?

“Restaurants pay the paltry wage of $2.13 an hour to waitresses, and now they’ll actually be allowed to take money away from them and force them to share it with other low-paid employees,” Hastert said. “That’s completely wrong.”

Phil Nicholas

Senator Phil Nicholas (R-Laramie)

Not all Republicans liked the bill. On Friday, Sen. Phil Nicholas (R-Laramie) a member of the Joint Conference Committee trying to reach an agreement on the House and Senate versions of the bill, complained that it “sanctions the food industry to run roughshod over everybody.”

Maybe next year, legislators can pass a bill that requires workers to thank them for taking away their vacation pay, and — if the House and Senate give final approval to HB112 — for reducing the wages of tipped employees. I’m sure lawmakers can find some other ways to punish them.

After all, Wyoming legislators must honor the anti-labor legacy of their predecessors, who approved the state’s misnamed “right-to-work” bill on Feb. 4, 1963. The measure was debated while police and the National Guard stood by the Capitol to keep the peace, even though it reportedly wasn’t in jeopardy. Signed immediately by then-Gov. Cliff Hansen, the law stated that no one had to join a union in order to be hired.

Hansen and Republican lawmakers argued that the law would actually strengthen unions, a prediction that was as laughable then as history has proven it to be.

Democratic Rep. Walter Phelan of Cheyenne told his colleagues, “Actually, this is a union-busting piece of damn legislation. Now those are strong words, but this is a strong bill.”

Unfortunately, it was the first of many to take direct aim at the rights of Wyoming workers to bargain for decent wages and working conditions. But stealing wages and benefits from workers that they’ve already earned? That’s a new twist.

— Kerry Drake of Casper has 37 years of experience as a reporter, columnist and editor at Wyoming’s two largest daily newspapers.

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