The Law @ Work

LMRA Does Not Preempt Massachusetts’ Earned Sick Leave Law

by Kimberly A. Klimczuk

When the Massachusetts Earned Sick Leave law was passed, some unionized employers expressed concern over how the law would affect their existing union contracts.  Such employers, having already negotiated with their unions over the amount of sick leave and over how the leave was to be implemented, were now faced with a state mandate to alter their sick leave policies.

In response, the Labor Relations Division of Construction Industries of Massachusetts and other construction-industry employer associations filed a complaint alleging that the Earned Sick Leave Law is preempted by the Labor Management Relations Act (LMRA) and therefore cannot apply to employees covered by a collective bargaining agreement.  Last week, the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts dismissed the complaint and held that the LMRA does not preempt the Earned Sick Leave law.

Preemption basics

The Supreme Court has interpreted the LMRA to completely preempt state law claims brought to enforce the terms of collective bargaining agreements.  In addition to claims to enforce the terms of a CBA, any state law claim will be preempted by the LMRA if resolution of the claim requires the interpretation of a collective bargaining agreement or is “inextricably intertwined with consideration of the terms of the labor contract.”

LMRA and Earned Sick Leave

The Earned Sick Leave law requires employers with at least eleven employees to provide paid sick leave to employees, at the same hourly rate that the employee would earn if working.  The regulations implementing the law define precisely how the “same hourly rate” is to be calculated. The employers association plaintiffs alleged that, in a scenario where a unionized employee brought a claim for improper pay under the sick leave law, a court would have to interpret the parties’ collective bargaining agreement to determine the appropriate hourly rate.  Due to such interpretation, claimed the plaintiffs, the Earned Sick Leave law must be preempted.

Interpretation v. consultation

The court disagreed, noting that in order for a claim to be preempted by the LMRA, the claim must require more than “mere consultation” of the collective bargaining agreement.  The court held that looking up an employee’s pay rate in a collective bargaining agreement did not rise to the level of “interpreting” the collective bargaining agreement in a way that would trigger preemption.  Thus, the court affirmed that the sick leave law applies to unionized employees.

More challenges to come?

In May, the plaintiffs sought to amend their complaint to include a claim that the sick leave law was preempted by the Employee Retirement and Income Security Act (ERISA). The court had denied the request, deciding to address each preemption issue one at a time.  In its decision denying preemption on LMRA grounds, the court gave the plaintiffs two weeks in which to re-raise the issue of ERISA preemption, but expressed doubts that they would have standing to bring such a claim.  We will, of course, to continue to report further developments.

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