Union Contracts to the Rescue? Really?

15 June 2015 Labor & Employment Law Perspectives Blog

We have previously alerted readers to the growing number of cities and states that have enacted paid sick leave laws, and the need to ensure employers that operate in these jurisdictions comply. However, so far, little attention has been paid to the extent to which such laws may conflict with union contracts providing similar benefits, and employers with union contracts should therefore examine their obligations under them to make sure they are not providing benefits to employees above what is required.

Relevant to this discussion is the principle of federal preemption that courts have developed over the years —which limits the states (and local governments) from legislating in areas where the federal government has expressly or impliedly indicated an intention to occupy an entire field of law. Generally speaking, this principle prevents the states from interfering in the administration of a union contract. However, the courts have also recognized that the states have the right to create “minimum standards,” and such minimum standards can take precedence over contrary provisions of a union contract.

Because many state laws recognize the potential conflict between their employment laws and the terms of a union contract, courts have often created exceptions for union contracts, provided those contracts comply with certain minimum conditions. Therefore, if a union contract provides certain paid sick leave rights, the employer may not need to comply strictly with state or local paid leave laws.

However, the law is not yet clear whether or not a union contract qualifies as “exempt” from these state and local laws that require these types of paid leave benefits. It may well be that this question can only be answered by interpreting a union contract, and states are generally prohibited from engaging in such interpretation unless the language of the contract is beyond dispute. Indeed, finding what the parties meant when they wrote union contract language may be a matter for vigorous dispute, and its resolution will often depend on the wording of the union contract, the bargaining history, and the parties’ prior practice in applying the contract. Employers with union contracts that are faced with complying with the many new state or local employment laws – such as paid sick leave – that potentially conflict with the terms of a collective bargaining agreement, would be well advised to seek experienced counsel in these areas to determine whether the state or locality may have overreached its authority by interfering in an area traditionally reserved for federal law.

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