In one of the most significant labor decisions in decades, the Supreme Court today held in Janus v. AFSCME that public sector workers cannot be forced, over their first amendment objections, to pay dues or fees to a union as a condition of employment. The implications for organized labor, in both the public sector and private sector, are significant. For example, the HR Policy Association reported that a recent survey by AFSCME of its 1.6 million members found that only 35% of those members would definitely pay dues if not required to do so. There is little question that union treasuries will be negatively impacted by this decision. This, in turn, may impact the ability of unions to continue to organize and represent employees in both the public and private sector.

Public sector union dues and agency fees are currently a major source of political contributions to candidates who favor union positions. If Janus forces unions to spend their funds on representation activities instead of political donations, the power of unions in Washington, state capitals and city halls will be diminished.

Several international unions, including the Service Employees International Union and AFSCME, have been active in both their public and private sector negotiations in trying to plan for a future that would involve the decision rendered by the Supreme Court today. The SEIU, for example, has proposed in numerous negotiations that work previously done on-site by paid union representatives would now be coordinated and centralized out of the International Union’s offices to eliminate the need for SEIU representation to attend meetings on site at each of their organized facilities. Both unions also have preemptively sought “recommitments” from their membership related to their financial support for their union.

The Janus decision could allow for an estimated 5 million government workers in twenty-two states to stop paying agency fees, the portion of union revenue that funds collective bargaining. Twenty-eight states previously passed “right to work” laws, which allow workers to avoid paying even the agency fees. It is certainly possible that the Janus decision will further embolden efforts in the non-right to work states to propose legislation to further limit the ability of unions to require union security provisions that would provide for the payment of dues or agency fees.

While implications of the decision will play out over the next several years, it is certainly a body blow to organized labor that will impact not only the public sector but private sector as well.  Employers should expect immediate complications in all negotiations, as unions seek to deal with a significant loss of revenues.

The Employee Benefits Security Administration of the Department of Labor has just released for public consideration, and published for comment, a significant new interpretation of the term “employer” under ERISA. Under the proposal, small businesses and sole proprietors would have more freedom to band together to provide health coverage for employees in what are referred to as “Small Business Health Plans” or “Association Health Plans”.  The proposal would allow employers to form a Small Business Health Plan on the basis of geography or industry. A plan could serve employers in a state, city, county, or a multi-state metro area, or it could serve all the businesses in a particular industry nationwide.

Up until now, most association arrangements, such as Multiple Employer Welfare Arrangements (MEWAs), have been considered as a collection of individual employer plans, rather than a single plan. This meant that the plans were treated as being in the small employer group market or the large employer group market based on the number of participants in each employer’s workforce. The effect of the new interpretation would be to put all the employer populations together, so they would all be in (most commonly) either the large group market or, if the association decides to be self-insured, in the self-insured market.

In addition, the new interpretation would permit sole proprietors and partners to be treated as both employers, for certain purposes, and employees for the purpose of being able to participate in the Association Health Plan. In the past, “employee-less” groups were treated as not covered by ERISA. Now, entrepreneurs with zero employees can obtain coverage through the association, and business owners who are active in the business can obtain coverage alongside their employees.

A third major part of the new interpretation is a non-discrimination requirement. As currently envisioned, an association cannot discriminate against employers based upon any health characteristic of the employer’s workforce. Nor can the plan discriminate within an employer group based on health characteristics of any participant. However, the association can establish different rates for “non-health” characteristics, such as bargaining unit membership, beneficiary vs. participant status, retiree vs active status, full- vs. part-time status, and occupation. The specifics of what associations can do to “police” member employer conduct and how the association can encourage wellness initiatives will require additional interpretation.

The fourth major change from current interpretative guidance is that associations may be formed specifically for the purpose of having a benefit plan. Until now, an association had to have had a reason to exist apart from providing benefits, such as promoting the industry in which its members operate. The limitation is now that the association may be formed specifically to offer health plans if it offers them (1) within a state or (2) within a metropolitan area, even if the metropolitan area covers more than one state. The definition of the metropolitan area is one of the points as to which the DOL is seeking input.

As with all things ERISA, the new interpretation is complex and raises significant issues for small- and medium-sized employers who are not already self-insured. Interested parties now have 60 days to submit comments. Because the initiative for the new interpretation was an Executive Order, it is anticipated that the time from the close of comments to issuance of a final rule will be short. Employers would be well-advised to follow developments closely, submitting comments where appropriate and encouraging any associations to which they belong to weigh in.

The U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals issued an opinion on October 13, 2017, that serves to remind employers of the need to pay employees when they take short work breaks during their workday.

In DOL v. Am. Future Sys., Inc. 2017 BL 367399, 3d Cir., No. 16-2685, the employer had a “flex time” policy under which it allowed employees to take breaks “at any time, for any reason, and for any duration.” The company tracked employee breaks by monitoring when they logged off their computers, which they were required to do when on a break, and they were only paid while logged-on to their computers. While on their breaks, employees were allowed to leave their work stations and to use the time for their own personal benefit.

The Department of Labor (“DOL”) argued that the employees should have been paid for their short breaks taken during the course of the day, and the trial court granted it summary judgment. Although the employer argued that employees were free to do what they wanted while on breaks, the DOL relied on the language in the regulations for the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”), which provide that rest periods up to 20 minutes should be compensable. The 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals gave “substantial deference” to the DOL since it is responsible for administering the FLSA, and it affirmed the granting of summary judgment for the DOL. The Court noted, however, that should employees abuse the “flex time” policy, such as by taking multiple breaks of 19 minutes in length, the employer could discipline the employees, but it nevertheless had to pay them for the break time.

This decision serves as a reminder to employers to pay employees for any breaks that are 20 minutes or less, regardless of whether the employees are free to use the time as they choose or to leave the employer’s facility. This is also a good time for employers to remember that any unpaid breaks, such as meal times, must not be interrupted by the employer or the entire meal period could become compensable.

Employers in union settings know that they generally cannot make changes to their employees’ wages, hours and other terms and conditions of employment without first negotiating to impasse with the union. The exception to this rule has historically been that the employers could make changes, as long as they could show that their labor contract had a management rights clause that allowed certain changes to be made without bargaining. A recent decision from the National Labor Relations Board, however, will make it more difficult for employers to show that a management rights clause actually allows these types of changes to be made without bargaining.

The NLRB’s recent decision (Graymont, PA, Inc. and Local Lodge D92, 364 NLRB No. 37) involved a situation that is common in unionized workplaces. The employer and the union had a collective bargaining agreement in place with a management rights clause which provided that the employer:

[R]etains the sole and exclusive rights to manage; to direct its employees; . . . to evaluate performance, . . . to discipline and discharge for just cause, to adopt and enforce rules and regulations and policies and procedures; [and] to set and establish standards of performance for employees…

The employer relied on this clause to announce changes to the work rules and the attendance and progressive discipline policies. The union objected to this move and requested a meeting with the employer. The union also requested that the employer provide information about the changes. The employer met with the union, but took the position that it was not required to bargain over the changes (due to the management rights clause). The employer also took the position that it was not required to respond in any way to the request for information. After a single meeting with the union, the employer implemented the revised policies.

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