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Council hears new perspective on wages

Harrison County Prosecutor Ronald W. Simpson and Superior Court Judge Roger Davis requested Monday night that the Harrison County Council base the new hourly rate of pay on 37-1/2 hours per week, rather than 40 hours per week, as has been the case since July 1.
Instead, council president Gary Davis said the council is in the process of determining who should and should not be an hourly worker versus a salaried worker, and once those decisions have been made, the council will more properly be able to make a decision about an hourly rate of pay.
After a presentation last week before the Harrison County Board of Commissioners in which Simpson stormed from the room in apparent frustration, he began this meeting by saying that his recent public speaking engagements have not gone well. “I’ve written down my comments and will try to stick to the script,” he said.
Simpson explained that prior to July 1, when the courthouse hours changed because of a mandate by the commissioners, most county employees only worked 36 hours per week because of the one-hour lunch four days per week. Both Wednesday and Saturday were half days, with a four-hour shift.
Along with the commissioners’ order to keep all county offices open from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday and eliminate Saturday hours were directions that each full-time employee should work 40 hours per week. The clause regarding 40 hours per week has since been removed, and it is only neccessary that the offices be open 40 hours, not that every employee work those hours.
In a separate action, the council said employees’ rate of pay would be calculated by an hourly wage rather than by an annual salary, and the hourly wage would be determined by calculating the old weekly rate divided by 40 hours.
The controversy is that most county employees, or almost all county employees other than those at the highway department, were not working 40 hours per week. Most were working 36, or, in the case of the workers at the Justice Center, only 32 hours per week because they did not hold Saturday hours.
The employees were essentially receiving a paid lunch hour, which, they calculated, either gave them a weekly total of either 40 or 36 hours, respectively, at the courthouse or Justice Center. Overtime hours were worked in addition to the 40- or 36-hour totals, and overtime was granted in compensatory time.
Simpson said: “Most employees received a pay cut because they had to work four hours longer each week for the same rate of pay.”
He requested that the council revise the hourly rate of pay to be based on a 37-1/2 hour work week, rather than 40, noting that he believes most county employees are underpaid. The 37-1/2 hours would come from a work week consisting of 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, with a one-hour, unpaid lunch break each day.
Judge Davis said: “Many of the county employees, maybe all of them, came to work on the idea of certain conditions ‘ and when that’s changed, that’s something you should consider.”
The judge also said he thinks the county is losing by counting every minute that employees work. Before the new policy began on July 1, he said, employees were working more hours.
Gary Davis explained that it is important to separate the duties of the county commissioners and the council. The council sets the rate of pay, but the commissioners alone are responsible for the hours required of offices and employees.
The council president further explained that it was never the intent of the county council to change people from salaried workers to hourly employees; the council merely wished to set the wages according to an hourly rate, rather than annual.
He said that what constitutes an hourly or salaried employee is set by the Fair Labor Standards Act, which says that employees are exempt and may be salaried if they are executives, administrators, or professionals.
“Reading exemptions and applying them to a single employee is not a black and white issue; it’s a judgment call,” Gary Davis said. He said the council needed to take the issue under advisement until they determine which employees are hourly or salaried.
Simpson said he is not willing to give up on the issue. “I would like the council to approve my employees’ and the judge’s employees’ pay at the rate from the first half of the year. That seems only fair.”
Several people in the audience, mostly county employees, clapped after that statement.
“I understand what you want us to do. I’m not in a position to do it tonight,” Gary Davis said. “The issue is: What is the proper way to calculate the hourly rate?”
He said the fact that some people have not worked or are not working 40 hours isn’t an issue, because that is a concern of the commissioners.
Councilman Alvin Brown then asked Simpson, “For all these years, you’ve never worked 40 hours?” When Simpson said yes, Brown dropped his pen on the table and said, “I thought you worked 40 hours.”
Superior Court Chief Probation Officer Diane Harrison pointed out from the audience that employees have been filling out time cards that indicate a 36-hour work week.
But the council seemed unanimous in the idea that they were not aware of that.
Gary Davis, almost the lone voice of the council during this portion of the meeting, said, “I had no idea people in the county weren’t working 40 hours. If we based their annual pay on 40 hours per week, this should still be fair.” He said that during salary deliberations in the past, the council had always assumed they were paying employees for a 40-hour work week.
“We’re gonna pay those people what was budgeted for 2001,” Davis continued. “You’re accusing our motivation. Our motivation didn’t have anything to do with this. We didn’t know!”
Councilman Davis noted that a person exempt from hourly pay requirements by the Wage and Hour law is not allowed to take compensatory time, and it is the goal of the council to resolve this entire issue as quickly as possible.
After the decision about hourly and salaried employees, the council said there will be no more “comp time.” A salaried employee will be required to work whatever number of hours needed for the job, and hourly employees will be paid time and-a-half overtime pay. This way, the council said, employees will directly be paid for the hours they work.
Harrison asked if there was any chance of county employees getting back pay for what their pay had been cut.
Gary Davis said that according to what is decided, back pay could be a possibility.
He said that would be taken under advisement, and speaking for the council, he said, “We appreciate the professional way in which the comments have been made.”
A decision about distinctions as hourly or salaried employees should be made by the first of September, or possibly by the Aug. 27 council meeting.