ACCA convention confronts legislation, new overtime laws.

AUSTIN, Texas - There weren't too many cowboy boots or 10-gallon hats on Air Conditioning Contractors of America members assembled here for the group's 37th annual convention.

But even if those Lone Star State trademarks weren't in abundance, ACCA members were, as the group held what officials called its largest conference ever.

"After last year's record-breaking conference in New Orleans, we knew we had a lot to live up to," said ACCA President and CEO Paul Stalknecht. "However, the feedback from this year's event has been outstanding and it looks like our members helped us create an even more exciting success than we had anticipated."

More than 1,600 came to the Renaissance Austin, the site of the March 9-12 event. The trade show, which ACCA officials said had 33 percent more booth space than last year's, was sold out.

The ACCA also brought in Travelocity.com founder Terrell Jones for the March 10 opening session, and New Mexico State University Professor Lowell Catlett, Ph.D., for the closing session. Catlett was a speaker at the ACCA's 2003 convention in Palm Springs, Calif.

As it had in previous years, the association invited the top executives from HVAC equipment makers Carrier, York, Trane and Rheem for a question-and-answer session with members, which was held March 11. Discussion focused on the soon-to-be standard 13 seasonal energy-efficiency ratio and changes to less-polluting refrigerants.

There were also 44 educational sessions, covering everything from marketing plans to the untapped "gold mines" of cooling. Here's a look at two of them.

The ACCA asked Francine W. Breckenridge, an Austin-based labor attorney, to explain changes in the federal overtime laws in a March 11 seminar. The changes, which took effect in August 2004, were the biggest to the act in 67 years.

Labor pains

In August 2004, the U.S. Labor Department instituted the most sweeping overhaul of federal overtime laws in 67 years, changing just who receives the extra pay and when they get it. Depending on whom you ask, the laws either guarantee time-and-a-half pay to hundreds of thousands more workers, or it cuts it for millions.

What is certain is the new rules have confused many small-business owners, and ACCA members are no exception. The association brought Francine W. Breckenridge, an Austin-based labor attorney, to explain the changes. During her standing-room-only March 11 presentation, "How to Avoid Pitfalls and Problems Under the Fair Labor Standards Act," Breckenridge explained that you can't simply call someone a "manager" and expect to get out of paying overtime.

"They're really looking at true managerial employees," she said, adding the overtime-exempt classification is not based on pay.

"No matter how high you compensate a nonexempt employee, it's not going to convert them to an exempt employee."

Also, the law is written so that traditional blue-collar workers - those involved in labor-intensive occupations, which would generally include HVAC workers - are entitled to overtime, no matter how much they earn, she said.

Any overtime exemptions are "narrowly construed" to avoid companies making sweeping claims about exemption status and denying workers overtime. Employers must consider the duties a worker actually performs when deciding who is eligible for overtime, she said.

The government has three general classifications for overtime-exempt employees: professionals, administrators and executives. They must be paid at least $455 a week, on a salary basis, Breckenridge explained. For the "professional" exemption, which generally means a job requiring advanced knowledge, workers must perform tasks that are more intellectual than physical and make decisions in their jobs.

"If (an employee) doesn't have a four-year degree, it's not going to cut it," she said.

"Administrators" are defined as people who usually do office or nonmanual work related to management or business operations. Administrators also must make major decisions as part of their duties.

"Executive" duties must include managing the company or a major department, or division. Typically, they must supervise two or more full-time workers, and they must have the ability to hire or fire, or at least have major input in such decisions.

Since employers are largely responsible for making sure the new rules are followed, she told the contractors, "If the Department of Labor never comes, you can do whatever you want." However, she added that the department is targeting the construction and restaurant industries for compliance.

She also added that some states, such as California, have more restrictive labor laws that companies there must follow. Generally, these are on the east and west coasts, she said.

The ACCA’s director of government relations, Chris Brown, explained the importance of knowing your elected state, local and federal officials in a March 12 seminar on “The Contractor Activist.”

Legislators

Legislators - as opposed to legislation - was the focus of Chris Brown's March 12 seminar, "The Contractor Activist: How Contractors Can Engage Lawmakers to Work for You." Brown is the ACCA's director of government relations.

He told the handful of contractors at the Saturday morning session that they all have a business partner: the federal government.

"The federal government is pretty much involved in every aspect of your business, good and bad," Brown said.

So it's important for contractors to get to know their legislators at the federal, state and local levels, he added. And many of them probably don't understand the issues unique to HVAC contractors, since no current member of Congress has worked in the industry. The closest, Brown said, is one Congress member from California who is a former home builder, and a New Jersey congressman who has a brother in the HVAC industry.

"There's always someone who is going to be working against us," Brown said. "So if you can find your friends in the state legislature or Congress, they can help you."

(For reprints of this article, contact Jill DeVries at (248) 244-1726 or e-mail devriesj@bnpmedia.com.)