After Massachusetts voters approved the Earned Sick Time Law (ESTL) referendum in 2014, a group of construction industry employers filed a lawsuit asking a federal judge to declare that the new law couldn’t be enforced against them because they are parties to collective bargaining agreements (CBAs) with unions. So far, the courts have replied that it’s too early to weigh in one way or the other.
It’s A Little Complicated
The employers specifically wanted the court to prohibit the attorney general (AG) from either granting their unionized employees the right to file private ESTL lawsuits or enforcing civil ESTL sanctions against them, even though neither of those things had actually occurred by the time they filed suit. Federal labor law formed the basis for the lawsuit.
The employers contended that when Congress passed Section 301 of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) in 1947, lawmakers intended that federal labor law would prevail over inconsistent state laws. The result is that Section 301 “preempts” state lawsuits alleging CBA violations.
Consequently, state-law claims for breaches of a CBA should be dismissed so the claims can be arbitrated pursuant to the arbitration provisions of the CBA. That result promotes the dual federal labor law policies in favor of arbitration as the preferred means of resolving labor-management disputes and the primacy of the arbitrator in the interpretation of a CBA.
The employers argued that in order to decide a union worker’s claim under the ESTL, the AG or a court would have to interpret a CBA (for instance, to determine the worker’s regular hourly rate or whether the CBA conferred more generous sick leave rights). That would be impermissible, according to the employers, because interpretation of a CBA is the role of an arbitrator.
The AG moved to dismiss the case on the grounds that the ESTL wasn’t preempted, as written, in all cases, and furthermore, the lawsuit wasn’t ripe for resolution because the law hasn’t yet been enforced. After the federal district court judge agreed, the employers appealed to the 1st Circuit—which covers Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island.
We Will Cross That Bridge When We Get to It
The court of appeals agreed with the lower court that the employers had jumped the gun. In reaching that result, the court made the following observations and conclusions.
First, the court of appeals noted that some legal rights are independent of CBAs, and Section 301 says nothing about the substantive workplace rights that states may provide unionized employees. Indeed, Section 301 hasn’t been read so broadly as to prohibit states (and voters) from conferring workplace rights—like earned sick time—to unionized workers, independent of their benefits under their CBAs
The court also observed that the employers had overstated their claim because an ESTL enforcement action may turn on issues that have little or nothing to do with the language of a CBA. For example, a simple reference to CBA pay rates in order to calculate damages or a decision on the merits of an ESTL retaliation claim that isn’t referenced in a CBA wouldn’t necessarily involve the CBA language and therefore wouldn’t need to be interpreted by the AG or a court.
The 1st Circuit characterized the employers’ request as asking the court “to resolve a hypothetical and abstract dispute rather than a real and concrete one.” It declined to do so, reasoning that the lawsuit wasn’t ripe for resolution because it depended on future events that might never happen. Finally, the court of appeals found that requiring the employers to wait for an actual case to arise causes them no significant harm. Labor Relations Division of Construction Industries of Massachusetts, Inc., et al. v. Maura T. Healy (1st Cir., 2016).
This decision kicks the can down the road. Unionized employers must wait and see what happens if and when a specific case involving the ESTL and a union contract arises. In the words of the court of appeals, only “once the specifics of an actual claim are known will it be possible to determine both how the claim relates to the governing CBA and how that claim may implicate Section 301 preemption.”
And, of course, the possibility of Section 301 preemption offers no hope to nonunionized employers that must comply with the ESTL. If you are faced with issues related to your employees’ use of earned sick time, check with experienced labor and employment counsel.
Timothy F. Murphy is a partner at the firm of Skoler, Abbott & Presser, P.C. Tim can be reached at 413-737-4753 or TMurphy@skoler-abbott.com.