Thursday, May 18, 2017

Union Employees Can Still Sue Over Pay Disputes

One good thing about collective bargaining agreements for employers is that employees have to use the grievance procedure to resolve disputes, rather than filing suit in court. Or do they?

It has long been understood that one exception to this rule is that employees covered by a union contract do not waive their rights under Title VII and other statutory protections absent specific waiver language in the agreement. But, what about pay disputes? Most union contracts have fairly specific language which says that disputes over wages, hours and other terms and conditions of employment are subject to resolution through the grievance procedure. This week the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals held that general language like that does not preclude an employee from filing a claim against their employer under the FLSA.

In the case of Vega v. New Forest Home Cemetery, LLC, the plaintiff, Vega, sued his former employer for failure to pay his last two weeks of wages before he resigned. He alleged that when the company failed to pay him, it violated the FLSA because it did not pay him at least minimum wage for his work during that time.

The company argued that the plaintiff, a union member,  was required to use the grievance procedure to resolve his pay dispute and his failure to exhaust this administrative remedy precluded the court from hearing his claim. The district court agreed with the company. The 7th Circuit did not.

The 7th Circuit held that, like Title VII and other statutory claims, if a collective bargaining agreement does not specifically mention that FLSA claims are subject to the grievance procedure, the union contract does not serve as a waiver of an employee’s right to go directly to court with that claim. The court found that the union contract’s reference that pay disputes were subject to grievance procedure was not specific enough to prohibit the plaintiff from filing a FLSA suit.

Employers should take note that grievance language in collective bargaining agreements that do not specifically identify that statutory disputes are resolved by that process can still face lawsuits from employees. While unions are generally reluctant to waive specific statutory rights to judicial relief in most instances, it may be worth it to negotiate inclusion of wage statutes, such as the FLSA and Wage Payment and Collection Act, in disputes that are covered by the union contract’s grievance procedure.