- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 30, 2004

RICHMOND — Because of an oversight by Virginia lawmakers, a measure taking effect today gives workers the option of taking Sundays off — a slip that has alarmed businesses with weekend and round-the-clock schedules.

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

During the last session, a well-intended bill sponsored by Sen. Frederick M. Quayle, Chesapeake Republican, repealed archaic “blue laws” banning Sunday work, as well as a long list of business exemptions attached to it. That list was cross-referenced with another obsolete statute: the “day-of-rest” law.

No one noticed that the bill also removed day-of-rest exemptions for most private businesses, including manufacturers, hospitals, restaurants, movie theaters and hotels.

So starting today, all nonmanagement employees have the option of choosing Sunday or Saturday — if that is their day of Sabbath — as their rest day. In addition, all workers are allowed 24 consecutive hours off each calendar week.

The error has business leaders scrambling and government officials seeking a quick fix before the General Assembly returns in January.

Virginia’s Department of Labor and Industry has asked the office of state Attorney General Jerry W. Kilgore whether there is a solution that would involve interpreting the law based on its intent — not the legislature’s oversight.

But a spokesman for Mr. Kilgore said there appears to be no such remedy.

“There doesn’t appear to be an administrative approach for Governor [Mark] Warner to fix this,” spokesman Tim Murtaugh said. “The legislature is going to have to change it back.”

Late yesterday, Mr. Warner said he would support legislation in the January session that would fix the bill retroactively. He said he has asked Mr. Kilgore to determine whether retroactive legislation is legal in this situation and also whether the new law is constitutional.

Sen. Kenneth W. Stolle, Virginia Beach Republican, said he had legislation drafted to fix the problem.

Laurie Peterson, president of the Virginia Retail Merchants Association, said some merchants panicked after hearing about the new law.

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

In a statement this week, the state labor department said it plans to “investigate, to the extent possible, all complaints” under the law. The penalties include a fine of up to $500 for each offense. In addition, an employer who forces a nonmanagement employee to work on a day of rest may have to pay wages at the rate of three times the worker’s regular pay.

Jim Babb, a spokesman for Richmond-based Circuit City Stores Inc., said the company was aware of the changes in Virginia law. “We have the matter under review and, as always, we will conduct our business consistent with the law,” he said.

Atttorney 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.

The law does not specify whether employers should automatically provide the 24-hour period each week or whether they should do so only upon an employee’s request, Mr. Robertson said.

“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 Mr. Robertson, who heads the labor and employment section of Richmond law firm Hunton & Williams.

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

For his part, Mr. Quayle said he was “just trying to clear up the code” of Virginia. But he said he doubted the oversight would significantly affect businesses.

“I suspect that anyone who complains is going to be a troublemaker, quite frankly,” he said. “I don’t see that this is going to have that much of a practical effect. … That’s my gut feeling.”

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