Federal minimum wage will be choppy waters for river outfitters, lawsuit says – Greeley Tribune

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A Colorado rafting company is suing the US Department of Labor over a new minimum wage for federal contractors, saying the rule will increase costs and potentially make river travel unaffordable for many families.

Arkansas Valley Adventures and the Colorado River Outfitters Association filed a lawsuit Dec. 7 in U.S. District Court in Denver. They are represented by the Pacific Legal Foundation, a libertarian-leaning law firm.

Duke Bradford, owner of Arkansas Valley Adventures, said he and the outfitters association decided to sue the federal government after seeking clarification on the new rule which will take effect Jan. 30. He said outfitters who have permits to operate on federal lands are considered federal contractors under the executive order signed by President Joe Biden in April.

Federal officials have not responded to letters expressing concerns about the impacts of the wage rule on outdoor businesses, Bradford said. Outfitters say enforcing the minimum wage on their businesses will increase costs for them and for customers, as rafting guides, usually paid a flat rate per trip, spend several days at a time on the job.

“I don’t think anyone is going to, I certainly haven’t, to sue the federal government, the Department of Labor and the current administration,” Bradford said. “It’s not the ideal route, but we were left with few options.”

The Department of Labor has referred questions about the lawsuit to the US Department of Justice, which will represent the agency. The Justice Department did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

Lawyers for Bradford and the outfitters association argue that the president does not have the power to set the minimum wage. Additionally, Bradford and other businessmen who have federal land use permits are not federal contractors, said Caleb Kruckenberg, an attorney at the Pacific Legal Foundation.

“They’re actually paying the Forest Service or the (Office of Land Management) for the privilege of using federal lands, and it’s not a government contract,” Kruckenberg said.

The Biden administration has said raising the minimum wage to $15 from $10.95 will improve workers’ economic security and “reduce racial and gender disparities in income.” The rule reverses the Trump administration’s exemption of recreation services on federal lands from the minimum wage.

Outdoor recreation is an important part of Colorado’s economy. It contributed a record $12.2 billion to the state’s gross domestic product in 2019 and $9.6 billion in 2020.

The economic impact of commercial rafting in the state was $184.9 million in 2019. The total fell to $148.7 million in 2020 due to a late start to the season and restrictions related to COVID-19, according to a report from the Colorado River Outfitters Association.

“While the lawsuit may initially be viewed as an antiguide wage increase action, it is not,” the Colorado River Outfitters Association said in a statement to members regarding the decision to sue. “We maintain that in the long term, our employees will be negatively affected by this new rule.”

In a letter to its employees, Bradford said the company fully supports fair wages for guides, but paying people by the hour rather than by the trip would significantly increase operating costs for multi-day outings.

“The concern for my clients is what happens when you apply a 24-hour overtime rule to a multi-day trip,” Kruckenberg said. “It’s not just $15 an hour, it’s time and a half once you hit 40 hours, which is two days into the trip.”

Bradford, who started his business in 1998 in Buena Vista, said he’ll have to consider working four-day work weeks or rotating guides on multi-day, multi-night trips. He said he has 250 to 300 employees, many of whom are seasonal.

“If I had to pay for a 24-hour pay period, that would drive up the costs,” Bradford said. “And then families can’t afford to do that and we’re in a situation where only the wealthy can afford to do that.

“I really don’t think the federal government understands what we’re doing and the ramifications of such a broad policy,” he added.

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