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Legal glitch gives Va. workers Sundays off

Because of a legislative oversight, a new Virginia law requires businesses to give workers Saturdays or Sundays off if they want it. Employers — planning the holiday season five months away — are scrambling for options.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Because of a legislative oversight, a new Virginia law requires businesses to give workers Saturdays or Sundays off if they want it, alarming some businesses with weekend and round-the-clock shifts to cover.

Some retailers are even trying to get a game plan in place for their holiday shopping season, still several months away.

It was a mistake made last legislative session that came out of good intention.

All state Sen. Frederick M. Quayle wanted to do was repeal the archaic laws banning Sunday work. His measure did that, but it also got rid of a long list of business exemptions attached to the old statute. That list was the same one attached to another obsolete statute, the “day-of-rest” law, which is still on the books.

No one noticed.

“It did blindside everyone,” said Hugh Keogh, president of the Virginia Chamber of Commerce.

So as of Thursday, the start of the state’s fiscal year, all non-management employees can choose Sunday or Saturday — if that is their day of Sabbath — as their rest day. A worker who “conscientiously believes” that Saturday should be observed as the Sabbath must provide written notice to the employer.

Triple-time pay?
In addition, all workers are allowed 24 consecutive hours off each calendar week.

Penalties include a fine of up to $500 for each offense. Also, a business that forces an employee to work on a day of rest may have to pay triple the worker’s regular pay.

While businesses are scrambling to reconfigure schedules, government officials are seeking a quick fix before the General Assembly returns in January 2005.

Virginia’s Department of Labor and Industry asked state Attorney General Jerry Kilgore whether the law could be interpreted on its intent — not the outcome. The answer: Probably not.

Democratic Gov. Mark Warner, who signed the bill into law, said he would support legislation in the January session that would fix the bill retroactively.

But Kilgore spokesman Tim Murtaugh said that solution won’t work either because the attorney general would essentially be asked not to enforce a law.

“If the governor has a problem with a bill he signed, he should call a special session and get it fixed,” Murtaugh said, adding the attorney general’s office had received a barrage of calls from worried businesses.

Special session possible
The governor can call a special session, or the legislature can convene by itself if two-thirds of the House of Delegates and Senate approve.

Citing the expense, a spokesman for Warner said he would call a special session only if the problem can’t be fixed some other way. House Democratic Leader Franklin P. Hall said he also preferred a special session only as a last resort.

“If you have a situation where we can’t find a way, either through regulations or with the attorney general finding some alternative way to deal with it, then of course,” he said.

Meanwhile, a group of businesses prepared to go to court Friday to block enforcement of the law, an effort that received Kilgore’s blessing.

“The attorney general sees that as a responsible way to put on the brakes without everybody losing his head,” Murtaugh said.

Indeed, some merchants are panicking, said Laurie Peterson, president of the Virginia Retail Merchants Association.

Christmas dead ahead
“This could be seriously harmful,” Peterson said. “We’re looking forward and seeing the ramifications this could have on the Christmas season.”

Attorney Gregory B. Robertson said he is advising his corporate clients to abide by the law unless there is any change. He said they should prepare to honor all written requests from employees who want off Sunday or Saturday as a rest day.

“I’d say, based on the way the statute is written, either the statute is changed or the exemptions are reinstated — or it seems that employers will be in a fairly significant dilemma,” said Robertson, who heads the labor and employment section of Richmond law firm Hunton & Williams.

In a recent report, Robertson and another attorney said an increasing number of employees will probably take advantage of the law once the legislature’s error becomes widely known.