Wednesday, September 3, 2003

The federal agents go after a comp time 'outlaw'

Peter Bronson

'Comp time'' has been around since Pharaoh refused to pay overtime on the pyramids. It's the 30-weight oil that keeps America's economic engine from overheating and throwing a rod. So why did the U.S. Department of Labor put sugar in the gas tank of William Pierce's business, to score a meaningless point about comp time?

"I'm bald, and it curled my hair,'' said John Hexter, a former member of a federal regulatory fairness panel that investigated the case. "The government attacked a small business, and it went out of business as a result. We were just appalled at what the Department of Labor did to Bill Pierce.''

DOL officials say Pierce dug his own hole.

The Maineville businessman started an engineering consulting firm in 1983. In five years, he had 50 employees at branches in Cincinnati, Louisville and Detroit.

Then the DOL showed up for an audit and sued him for improperly using "flex time" to dock the pay of salaried workers who did not work a full 40-hour week.

"The employer has to pay a full salary for any week in which the employee performed any work,'' said Tammy McCutchen, administrator of the wage and hour division of the DOL.

Although comp time is allowed for government workers, it is illegal in the private workplace, she said. "Exempt'' salaried workers who are sometimes expected to work more than 40 hours cannot be docked when they work less than 40; and non-exempt hourly workers must be paid overtime at time-and-a-half if they work more than 40 hours, she said.

"They sued over $3,100 out of a $1.5 million payroll,'' Pierce said.

A federal magistrate said Pierce's practices honored "the spirit and letter of the (law), and sought to treat and pay his employees in a manner that was professional, considerate and equitable.'' But federal courts ruled against him twice.

Pierce insists he offered to pay the $3,100. McCutchen said he was given that opportunity for a year and did not pay. Then the fines and penalties began to ratchet up.

"By 1992,'' Pierce said, "I was financially destroyed.'' Workers bailed out. Clients went elsewhere. He also got in trouble with the IRS in 1991 for failing to pay taxes. "I made a very bad mistake,'' he admits. His $400,000 home in West Chester was seized and sold to pay fines and creditors.

He says he still owes the IRS $6,000 in back taxes - plus $65,000 in penalties and interest.

McCutchen said the case has been reviewed by three presidential administrations, and each review found that Pierce was to blame, not the DOL. "I do not believe the (DOL) has done anything wrong. We never collected a dime from him,'' she said.

But she admits: "He has a point. These laws are complex and hard to understand.''

Although federal workers are entitled to get overtime pay, many choose comp time instead - to spend more time with their families, she said. And private employees "would at least like to have the same choice.''

Rep. Rob Portman set up a meeting between Pierce and McCutchen on Sept. 8. The case makes a point for all workers: Congress should legalize comp time.

"It's routine,'' Hexter said. "You just won't get any employers to admit it.''

If comp time is good enough for the federal Pharaohs, it's good enough for the rest of us wage slaves.

E-mail or call 758-8301.

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