Union Workers May Lose Protections under the Wage Act

Gordon Law Group

It has been long thought that union members would still have the protections of the Massachusetts Wage Act.  That our laws set a floor below which unions and employers could not dip below.  While some trial court judges have dismissed those protections, allowing unions and their employers to negotiate away rights to overtime, lunch breaks, minimum wages and other protections, the Massachusetts Appeals Court recently agreed.  As long as the language in the collective bargaining agreement is clear, the rights can be waived ahead of time.

It is well established law that the purpose of the Massachusetts Wage Act (“Wage Act”) is to prevent the unreasonable detention of wages by the employers in the Commonwealth.  For this reason, any purported waiver of the rights afforded under the Wage Act are strongly disfavored.  Moreover, to protect against the possibility “that the strong protections afforded by the Wage Act could be unknowingly frittered away under the cover of a general release in an employer-employee termination agreement,” the Supreme Judicial Court held that such an agreement “will be enforceable as to the statutorily provided rights and remedies conferred by the Wage Act only if [it] is stated in clear and unmistakable terms.”   “In other words, the release must be plainly worded and understandable to the average individual, and it must specifically refer to the rights and claims under the Wage Act that the employee is waiving.”

On September 5, 2018, the Massachusetts Appeals Court was asked to consider the concept of waiver in the context of collective bargaining agreements (”CBAs”).  In Parris v. Sheriff of Suffolk Cnty., 93 Mass. App. Ct. 864 (2018), the Court was asked to determine whether a provision in the CBAs between the sheriff and the unions representing his employees was a valid request in writing by the employees to be paid in a different manner than that set forth in the Wage Act.  Additionally, the Court was asked to determine whether the CBAs in question effectively waived the employees’ rights under the Wage Act.

The Court held that while the unions had the authority, through collective bargaining, to request that payment of overtime wages be made under a schedule that differs from what is provided in the Wage Act, nonetheless the CBAs at issue were not effective to waive the employees’ rights under the Wage Act.

Pursuant to G. L. c. 150E, unions are the “exclusive representative of all the employees … for the purpose of collective bargaining,”  and “are empowered to act on the employees’ behalf with respect to wages, hours…and any other terms and conditions of employment.’”   Accordingly, the unions possess the right to speak exclusively for all the employees on mandatory subjects of collective bargaining.   Thus, to harmonize the Wage Act with c. 150E, the Court held “that the unions may act on behalf of their members to exercise the employees’ election under the Wage Act to alter the timing of the overtime payments.”

Despite the fact that unions have the authority to waive an employee’s rights under the Wage Act, the Court held that the CBAs at issue did not contain the requisite waivers.  This is because the “Commonwealth’s fundamental public policy ‘to provide strong statutory protection for employees and their right to wages, would require, at the minimum, a clear and unmistakable waiver.”   The Court determined that the “CBAs here do not meet this high standard.”

Thus, the Court has made it clear that any attempt on behalf of an employee to skirt the statutory protections of the Wage Act will be subject to strict scrutiny.  If you are an employee who has been told that you waived your rights under the Wage Act, either through a private agreement or a CBA, please contact us for legal advice.

If you’re working in a union, while you may be getting better treatment on the one hand, you may be losing valuable rights on the other.

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