(UM Legislative News Service) Montana lawmakers are considering a bill that would add community assistants at colleges in the state — student employees who work for student housing — to a list of employees who are not eligible for overtime pay.
Senate Bill 218 aims to prevent a costly legal change in the Montana University System, and create what the sponsor called “common sense” legislation.
The bill was drafted in response to a wage claim decision from the Department of Labor and Industry that awarded $25,000 to a former student who worked as community assistant for the University of Montana in its housing facilities, according to the sponsor Sen. Steve Fitzpatrick, R-Great Falls. He said this bill will solidify an employment arrangement used by most universities that has “worked for decades.”
Community assistants receive free room and board, a stipend and sometimes extra wages, but a claimant argued her compensation did not cover overtime she worked while “on-call” for university housing residents, according to the decision handed down by the Department of Labor and Industry. The $25,000 awarded was calculated using the time she was on call plus penalty fees.
The Montana University System is appealing the decision so the award has not yet been paid to the former community assistant.
Kevin McRae, deputy commissioner for the Montana University System, said this is the only claim for overtime pay that’s ever been made by an employee for college housing facilities. He also said that if this claim for overtime becomes precedent, Montana’s universities will no longer be able to offer this same kind of employment arrangement in the future.
“We thought it would reasonable and appropriate to get this clarification into state law,” McRae said.
Chief legal counsel for the Department of Labor and Industry, Judy Bovington, said when a claim is made for the first time, it’s a chance for legal analysis. Between appeals and court decisions, it can be a lengthy process.
Helen Thigpen, attorney for the university system, spoke at the bill’s hearing and said the language is narrowly tailored to a specific type of employee. She said the university system will not make changes to this student employment arrangement if the bill passes.
The Associated Students of Montana did not take a position on the bill.
Darrell Holzer spoke as a concerned citizen and was the only opponent of the legislation. He told committee members he thinks the Legislature should focus on raising wages, not finding ways to reduce them.
“No matter the service, every worker deserves fair compensation,” Holzer said.
The bill awaits a vote by the Senate Education and Cultural Resources Committee before it could move forward to the full Senate for debate.
Shaylee Ragar and Tim Pierce are reporters with the UM Legislative News Service, a partnership of the University of Montana School of Journalism, the Montana Newspaper Association, the Montana Broadcasters Association and the Greater Montana Foundation. Shaylee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Tim can be reached at email@example.com.