Virginia's legislature and governor have accidentally resurrected an archaic law that allows employees to demand Sunday as a "day of rest," throwing many of the state's business leaders into a panic about the possibility that stores, airlines, hospitals and factories might be forced to shut down on weekends.
House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) said Thursday that a special session of the legislature may be the only way to rectify the problem, which was the byproduct of efforts during this year's General Assembly session to rid the state code of outdated provisions.
"I'm really not sure how else to handle it," Howell said. "It's a shame it happened, but it did, and I think it needs to be fixed."
A spokesman for Attorney General Jerry W. Kilgore (R) said he expects a group of businesses to file a lawsuit Friday morning seeking an injunction to delay enforcement of the law.
"We will not oppose them," said Tucker Martin, Kilgore's spokesman. "There clearly needs to be a full hearing on the constitutionality of these laws. This is a temporary solution."
Business organizations, which discovered the goof just days before the change in law took effect Thursday, declared that a financial crisis would result if the government did not find a way to void the laws that have existed since the 1600s.
They said small retail stores could be forced to close on Sundays if their only employees demanded the day off. Factories that work seven-day shifts could experience a sharp drop in productivity. And even holiday shopping in November and December could be affected, they warned.
"It's huge. You look across the breadth of the commonwealth and look at the variety and type of businesses that operate on Sunday. It's endless," said Keith Cheatham, director of government affairs for the Virginia Chamber of Commerce. "If everybody decided they wanted Sundays off as a matter of right, the potential is there for a major disruption."
In Northern Virginia, business groups informed their members and assessed the potential for confusion.
Not everyone foresaw disaster. Jim Deuel, general manager of the Dulles Hyatt hotel, said the law probably would not wreak havoc with the hotel's operations. The 316-room hotel has a policy of accommodating employees who want to take a weekend day for religious reasons, he said.
"Realistically, most employees in this industry work on days where there's work available," said Deuel, adding that only 15 to 20 of the hotel's 150 employees are needed for weekend duty. "If it's a Sunday or Saturday and that's their chosen day for religious worship, then they work around that day."
Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) is in Idaho on a white-water rafting vacation and could not be reached for comment. His press secretary, Ellen Qualls, said the governor is supportive of other ways besides a special session to resolve the problem.
"There are obviously costs associated with [calling lawmakers into a special session] and disruption to their lives," Qualls said. "If there is a simpler way to fix this, that would be the governor's preference."
State labor officials, members of Warner's staff and lawyers in Kilgore's office struggled throughout Thursday to find a workable solution.
Administration officials said the day-of-rest law may be unconstitutional. If so, the governor could order the Department of Industry and Labor to exercise its discretion and refuse to investigate any complaints that the law is being violated.
"We believe there [are] some strong constitutional questions," said C. Ray Davenport, commissioner of industry and labor. "It's not clear how it's going to be enforced."
If a judge Friday delays enforcement of the law, the constitutional questions could be resolved in a hearing. And if the legal process drags on until January, the legislature could fix the problem during its regular 2005 session.
Many Virginia business owners seemed unaware of the law. Some of those who had heard about it said they hoped the General Assembly would soon deal with the problem. "We are asking the governor and General Assembly to correct their mistakes by acting expeditiously," William D. Lecos, Fairfax County chamber president and chief executive, said in a statement.
Even as they raced to solve the problem, the state's leading politicians sought to avoid blame for what they acknowledged was an embarrassing mistake.
In a letter to members, the state chapter of the National Federation of Independent Business said everyone in the lawmaking process was at fault.
"Nobody caught this -- not the legislator who sponsored the bill [Sen. Frederick M. Quayle (R-Chesapeake)], not the legislators who voted for the bill . . . not the governor who signed the bill and none of the lobbyists who watch for such bad bills," the letter said.
In hindsight, officials said, the mistake happened this way:
Senate Bill 659 proposed eliminating four out-of-date provisions of the blue laws, which forbid businesses to be open on Sundays.
The bill passed 40 to 0 in the Senate and 88 to 9 in the House.
But the provisions that were eliminated contained blue-law exemptions that covered another part of the code, which allows employees to take Saturday or Sunday as a "day of rest" for religious reasons. That part of the code was untouched.
Business leaders are most worried about Sunday, because that's the day the majority of Virginians, who are Christian, consider a religious holy day.
Davenport said some of his staff members apparently noticed the connection between the two sections of the code but did not realize the impact that the change would have on the state's businesses.
"It was not raised as a red flag to me," he said.
Staff writer Karin Brulliard contributed to this report.