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Two Recent Court Rulings That Pit Legal Theories vs Workplace Realities

US Supreme Court BuildingCan’t help but think there’s a huge “disconnect” between recent court rulings and real-life work situations.

First Case: Yesterday, the US Supreme Court weighed in on the question of whether employees are entitled to be paid for time spent waiting for security screening as they leave the job each workday. Apparently, the Supreme Court doesn’t believe that routinely searching employees to see if they’re stealing anything is actually “integral and indispensable” to those workers’ jobs. And the law doesn’t require employers to pay wages for duties that aren’t “integral and indispensable.”

At one level, I agree with the Court wholeheartedly. Proving you’re not a thief, day after day, should not be an “integral and indispensable” part of anyone’s job.

But, in real life: what would happen if those workers refused to go through the security screening? My guess is: they’d be fired.

Which, in my mind, makes those daily screenings “integral and indispensable” – at least as long as the employer insists upon them. Myself, I would distinguish between investigating employees after a theft, and the practice of requiring workers to go through daily screenings “to prevent theft.”  And I don’t think workers should be required to donate their personal time, just because the employer mistrusts every single one if its employees.

Second Case:  This morning, the New Hampshire Supreme Court weighed in with a reverse-and-remand decision about the NH Retirement System.

The court case, Professional Fire Fighters of New Hampshire et al. v. State of New Hampshire, challenged the 2011 increase in public employees’ contributions to the NH Retirement System. That increase ranged from 2% to 2½ % of employees’ paychecks, depending on the job classification. This “pension reform” provision was included as part of the State’s biennial budget.

The plaintiffs and the NH Retirement Security Coalition are still reviewing this morning’s decision.  From their press release:

The NH Retirement Security Coalition has long contended that promises made to our member employees should be enforced because our members uphold their promises each and every day that they go to work. The Court’s decision today unfortunately allows public employers to renege on their promise of security in retirement. While this decision is disappointing, our members will continue to provide high quality service to the state and its cities, towns, and school districts.

We are deeply concerned about the long term impact of this decision on the people of NH. We are carefully reviewing this decision in detail with our attorneys and members of the Coalition and we will offer further in-depth comment as soon as we are able to do so.  

But as I read the decision, one thing jumped out at me: again, I see a disconnect between the legal reasoning and everyday workplace reality.

As I read the ruling – and I could be wrong on this, I am NOT a lawyer – it appears to me that the Court is viewing this from a purely theoretical perspective. It seems to me that the Court based its ruling on the theory that raising retirement contribution rates didn’t retroactively harm public workers because the retirement benefits they had already accrued (under the lower contribution rates) were still there – and the new contribution rates only applied to retirement benefits accrued going forward.

Or, in other words: if a public employee had retired on the day the new contribution rates went into effect, then he or she would still be entitled to all the retirement benefits accrued up to that point… and therefore (as I read the Court decision), the Justices do not see any unconstitutional retroactive impact.

Which I guess begs the question: what would have happened in 2011 if every single one of the public employees covered by the NH Retirement System had chosen retirement, rather than what was effectively an employer-imposed pay cut?

And in the real world, what does this do to NH RSA 273-A, the Public Employee Labor Relations Law, if public employers are now able to unilaterally change the terms and conditions of employment by increasing required “contributions” to the NH Retirement System?

The NH Supreme Court may be asked to reconsider today’s ruling. Stay tuned.

 

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Members of the NH Retirement Security Coalition include:
Sandy Amlaw, New Hampshire Retired Educators Association
Steve Arnold, NE Police Benevolent Association
Dennis  Caza, Teamsters Union Local 633
Laura Hainey, American Federation of Teachers – New Hampshire
Mark Joyce, NH School Administrators Association
Rich Gulla, State Employees Association of New Hampshire – SEIU Local 1984
Dave Lang, Professional Fire Fighters of New Hampshire
Mark MacKenzie, New Hampshire AFL-CIO
Harriett Spencer, American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees Council 93
Keith Phelps, New Hampshire Police Association
Scott McGilvray, NEA – New Hampshire

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About Liz Iacobucci

Liz Iacobucci is the former Public Information Officer for the State Employees’ Association of New Hampshire, SEIU Local 1984. Over the past three decades, she has served in government at the federal, state and municipal levels; and she has worked for both Democratic and Republican politicians.
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