The U.S. Supreme Court released two big decisions yesterday. The first, which you’ve probably heard about, ruled that for-profit companies can deny female employees insurance coverage for birth control if it conflicts with their religious beliefs. (For more on the potential consequences of this outrageous and offensive decision, read this great piece in Slate. Also, since this is the Occupational Health News Roundup, it bears mentioning that in her dissent, Justice Ginsburg noted that the cost of an IUD is about a month’s full-time pay for a worker earning minimum wage.) But in addition to the Hobby Lobby decision, the court also ruled in Harris v. Quinn, which delivered a pretty significant blow to labor unions’ rights to collect fees from all workers who benefit from collective bargaining.
In a 5-4 decision, the court ruled that a group of Illinois home health care workers — the plaintiffs in the case — can’t be forced to pay fees to a union they didn’t wish to join, even if they benefit from the outcomes of collective bargaining negotiations. Also known as fair-share fees or agency fees, the fees are used to support the expensive process of negotiating on behalf hundreds or thousands of workers for better working conditions.
Basically, agency fees mean no one gets a free ride: If a majority of a workforce votes to unionize, non-union workers still reap the rewards of union representation and should bear their fair share of the costs that go along with collective bargaining. Illinois is among a number of states that requires public-sector workers, whether they decide to join the union or not, to pay fair-share fees. The workers who brought the case are a small group of home health aides who care for Medicaid patients and are part of a larger workforce that voted to unionize. As Ian Millhiser at Think Progress wrote, the workers did indeed benefit from the union’s efforts:
By any reasonable objective measure, the union struck a very good deal for Illinois’ home health aides. Before the union negotiated a collective bargaining agreement, the aides’ wages were just $7.00 an hour. Now they are $11.65 an hour, and they are scheduled to increase to $13.00 per hour in December. Nevertheless, the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation (NRWLDF), an anti-union litigation shop, found a handful of home health aides who object to this arrangement.
In describing why unions were holding their breath while awaiting the decision, Millhiser wrote:
If the Supreme Court complies with NRWLDF’s request to halt the non-union members’ fair-share payments, there will be little incentive for most workers to reimburse the union for the costs of collective bargaining — after all, why pay for higher wages when you can get them for free? Indeed, such a decision could set off a death spiral endangering the unions themselves. If non-members can suddenly stop paying agency fees, then unions will have to raise dues on their members in order to cover these losses. But, if unions raise their dues, more members will decide to drop out rather than pay the increased fees. Which will force even higher dues. Which will cause more members to drop out. Which will force even higher dues. The loss of agency fees potentially presents an existential threat to the union in Harris and to public sector unions across the country.
The majority of the court ruled that the workers in question weren’t full-blown government employees, but partial public employees and shouldn't be subject to the same fair-share rules as other public workers, such as teachers or police. The health workers are paid by the state, but employed by the patients. It's an unfortunate decision, but the one silver lining, observers say, is that the court didn’t completely overturn a previous decision from 1977 upholding fair-share fees for government employees. Still, Justice Kagan wrote in the dissent that the worker classification distinction is a bit far-fetched. She wrote:
A joint employer remains an employer, and here, as I have noted, Illinois kept authority over all workforce-wide terms of employment — the very issues most likely to be the subject of collective bargaining. The State thus should also retain the prerogative — as part of its effort to “ensure efficient and effective delivery of personal care services” — to require all employees to contribute fairly to their bargaining agent.
To read more about the court’s decision, read Millhiser’s article at Think Progress; Steven Greenhouse’s article in The New York Times; or this one from Michael Hiltzik in the Los Angeles Times. For a reaction from SEIU, the union that represents home health aides in Illinois, click here. And Mother Jones has a piece by Andy Kroll on four lawsuits that may be even worse for unions than Harris v. Quinn.
In other news:
Boston Globe: Last week, Massachusetts officially raised its minimum wage from $8 per hour to $11 by 2017, which means it’ll have the highest minimum wage of any state in the nation. Hourly wages for tipped workers will also go up from $2.63 to $3.75. The Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health noted that the legislation also “strengthens safety protections for workers, increases funeral benefits for families and makes permanent the multi-agency task force charged with combating the underground economy.” Here’s a handy chart from the Washington Post on nationwide minimum wage trends.
The Nation: Reporter Zoë Carpenter writes that low-wage workers might have a new ally in David Weil, who recently took over as the director of the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division. Carpenter writes that “Weill is directing the bulk of his resources to targeted investigations in industries and sectors where labor exploitation is endemic.”
Houston Chronicle: Texas Republicans are pushing back against proposed legislation drafted in response to the West, Texas, fertilizer plant explosion, which killed 15 people. According to reporter Paul Weber, the lawmakers are complaining that the proposed regulations, such as requiring that ammonium nitrate be stored in noncombustible containers, are an economic burden for business owners.
News of recent worker deaths: Just a small handful of recent worker deaths that made the news include Jose Felix Obando, a construction worker who died after falling down a 12-foot hole in Sweetwater, Florida (Sun-Sentinel); Macario Santiago-Cruz, a Kentucky construction worker who died after falling 30 feet (Lexington Herald-Leader); and Sarmad Iskander, a Toronto construction worker who died after falling from the 28th floor of a condominium project (Toronto Star).
Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for more than a decade.