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

Construction workers haul equipment on military road towards Buffalo Fork, Wyoming in this 1898 photo. Recently proposed legislation would curb workers’ rights in Wyoming, a state with a long history of anti-labor attitude. (Courtesy of Marion Doss/Flickr — click to view)
Guest column by Kerry Drake
February 19, 2013

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

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)

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)

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.”

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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Kerry Drake

Veteran Wyoming journalist Kerry Drake has covered Wyoming for more than four decades, previously as a reporter and editor for the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle and Casper Star-Tribune. He lives in Cheyenne and...

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  1. Typical “R” (Rich) logic, trickle up economics, the foundation of any economy is labor, and yet, that is not the belief in the Republican Party, it seems to me that labor is an unfortunate expense in doing business to these Cretans.

  2. The message in both of these pieces of legislation is this: an individual is a fool to be an employee in Wyoming.

  3. I actually sorta agree with the ” Share the Tips ” bill since I instigated that at a Cody restaurant where I was a cook , about 1989. it was a popular steakhouse. We cooks got $ 6.00 / hour, and while the waittresses ( all fashion model cute ) got their pathetic $ 2.50 / hour base wage, they were hauling in over $ 100 per night per honey. I merely suggested to the owner — who learned her food and beverage and schmoozing skills in the bistros of Las Vegas —- that the kitchen staff manufactures the fine food the waittresses merely served with a wink and a smile, and we were entitled to ask to pack some of the difference . We agreed on fifteen percent of the wait staff would come back to the kitchen . Even the dishwasher got a cut. And I call that Fair All Around. My sole stint into labor organizing.

    What is NOT fair ? The ridiculous but wholly legal law in Wyoming ( and elsewhere—is it Federal ? ) of being able to pay waittresses a humiliating base wage. Something like $ 2.00 / hour on the PRESUMPTION they will make it up on tips. It is just that : presumptuous, and entirely favorable to management.

    I would remedy the situation by updating the worker pay scale so that wait staff gets Minimum Wage straight away. I see nothing unreasonable about that , given that minimum wage is still about 35 percent of a Living Wage, at least in Cody where I am writing this. Being egalitarian , I expect the kitchen and non-servers employed at the restaurant to share in the waittresses’ tips, provided they all have the same base wage to work from. After all, the success and reputation of a restaurant is the product of the entirety of its workers and operating skills. It’s analagous to profit sharing and employees having a stake.

    I’ll close by saying that here in Wyoming the Right to Work …isn’t.

  4. Thanks,Kerry. Keep up your great work. We can hope that it works to a degree but I doubt that it does. The Wyoming rancher/Republican, legislator mindset is such that all working folks will have to grit their teeth and expect to work in slavery.
    My grandfather, Tom Bell, was a coal miner in northern Colorado when the Ludlow masscre took place. My father, Lafe Bell, was just starting to work in the mines. He told of the fears the family had but the coal miners persisted and won wage and number of hours worked so that they were not virtual slaves. We are now sliding back to those good old days. God help the working man/woman in Wyoming.
    Tom Bell Lander

  5. AuntEllie, that’s a great idea! The workers create the wealth for the company and they should be the ones benefiting from it. Companies do exist where this happens, and productivity is phenomenal. So are profits. So is pay. Taking care of workers makes them want to take care of the company. It all depends on how greedy the owners want to be. Owners who aren’t greedy still remain quite comfortable.

    No matter where people work or how much they’re paid, they give their lives over to their jobs. Work hours are hours of a person’s life when they can’t pursue other things. A person still must sleep and eat, and work takes most of the rest of their time. Every working day a person must still unwind from the stresses of working, in addition to taking care of their children and homes. People deserve to benefit from their own work, where they spend their time and energy, not simply enrich business owners. It’s only humane.

  6. Let’s turn the tables a bit. How about a wage CAP? That’s right. No one earns more than 10x the lowest wage earner’s pay in a company. The profits must be reinvested in company upgrades of materials, machinery, and infrastructure, distributed to paying employee health insurance premiums, child care, uniforms, supplies, etc. I’d say the company owners should already be taking care of their employees like this out of “their” profits. After all if the wage earners weren’t making the company owners a profit the owners would be out of business…. I’m sick of the workers getting the shaft while the owners thumb their noses at them while driving past in their hummers.

  7. In a state historically commanded by the Stock Growers and the Union Pacific RR, it is no surprise that this mentality at Cheyenne persists. Just go south a-ways, down the road of I-25, to see a grim legacy of this mindset. Ludlow, Colorado, 1914, striking coal miners for Rockefeller’s CF&I steel plant at Pueblo were attacked by Pinkertons and Colo. National Guard — innocent women and children mowed down by machine-gun fire and burned alive in their tents by soldiers. Or, closer to home, the Johnson County War, when big landed ranchers resisted sharing the free benefits of the public domain by hiring mercenary gun slingers to shoot and burn out homesteaders. The good ol’ boys in Cheyenne are simply trying to legalize de-facto slavery.

  8. that’s it, laid on the line. if you’re a low-wage worker who votes republican, you pretty much have to admit you’re self-destructive. thanks, Kerry.

  9. Kerry–you are absolutely right. Unions have been nearly decimated, and now we’ve come to the theft level–FP