Archive for the 'Employment' CategoryPage 2 of 30

Michigan Man Takes Steps for the Right to Care for His Family

When a family member or loved one is sick and in pain, the first reaction of many is to drop everything and take care of them. This was certainly the case for Curtis Brown. When his wife was scared to go to the hospital alone to have a lump on her elbow examined, he took steps to ensure he could be there for her in her time of need. He went early to his job making paper and cardboard at mill owned by Rock-Tenn in order to complete his work in time to go to the hospital with his wife.

This was not the first time he had done something like this, Mr. Brown had been taking intermittent leave for years in order to take care of his wife due to recurrent episodes of distress and confusion coupled with chronic gastrointestinal issues. However, this was the last time Mr. Brown took such leave—at least with Rock-Tenn. When he went to leave, his employer demanded that he stay for the remainder of his appointed shift. Mr. Brown refused and was ultimately fired for insubordination.

Looking at this initially, your first reaction may be that Mr. Brown was in a tough situation but you have to work the shifts assigned to you.  However, federal law may offer Mr. Brown the protections to take work off to be with his wife. Thus, Mr. Brown brought a lawsuit against his former employer alleging violations of his rights under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA)—a 1993 Act which requires certain employers to provide their employees with a certain amount of unpaid leave to take care of family members.

How Does the FMLA Work?

The FMLA requires employers to offer their employees at least 12 weeks of unpaid leave every year to take care of a family member. However, like all things in law, it’s not quite so simple as this.  The FMLA doesn’t apply to every employer, every employee, or even every illness.

In order to protect smaller employers from being overburdened by the requirements of the Act, the FMLA only applies to employers with more than 50 employees at a single location. Where this is the case, the employer must extend the family medical leave actprotections of the FMLA to all their workers who are employed within 75 miles of the place they have 50 or more workers.

Even if an employer has enough employees to be held to the requirements of the FMLA, an employee has to fulfill certain conditions before the employer must allow them FMLA leave.  Only employees who have worked for at least a year and at least about 25 hours per week for the last year qualify for the leave. What’s more, employees in the top 10% of pay within the 75-mile radius the employer covers are exempted from required coverage under the FMLA. There are also a few other exceptions to the Act such as elected officials.

Once all these ducks are in a row, and an employee is due protection under the FMLA, the question becomes what sort of situations require an employer to grant a request for unpaid FMLA leave. The FMLA requires leave for a number of things. However, the primary situations where it comes up are where an employee needs to care for a newly born, adopted, or fostered child, issues arising out of a family member’s military deployment, or to care for a family member’s—or recover from your own—serious illness.

As you might expect from a statute, the term serious illness is not left up to common sense interpretation. Instead, it is specifically defined as “an illness, injury, impairment, or physical or mental condition that involves inpatient care or continuing treatment by a health care provider.”  This means that you can’t get leave for check-ups and other routine medical care or for illnesses that come and go quickly like a common chest cold.

How Do You Ensure Your Rights Under the FMLA?

Even once you qualify for leave, you can’t just take it whenever you want, you have to ask your employer first. However, where the leave is qualified under the Act the employer has to grant it. Before taking leave it’s important that an employee notify their employer that they’re going to be taking FMLA leave and explain why, when, how often, and provide a doctor’s note or similar thing if your employer requires it. It’s also important to let your employer know if anything changes and, above all, that you plan to come back to work after your leave is over. When you can see the need for leave coming, the Act requires an employee to give this notice at least 30 days before they actually take leave.

Once you’re actually approved for leave, an employer can require you to use your paid leave—such as sick days—before starting in of your guaranteed 12 weeks per year of unpaid FMLA leave. However, once you’re on leave you have a number of legal protections that an employer must abide by. An employee must get the same health benefits they would get as if they were not on leave—although the employer is not required continue to provide life or disability benefits. When you return, your employer must reinstate all benefits and pay as well as give you back your old—or a comparable—position.

Where an employer takes action against an employee because they exercise their rights under the FMLA that can give rise to a retaliation claim against the employer. The Act also allows for employees to sue an employer for interfering with any of their rights under the FMLA in a type of lawsuit aptly named an interference suit.

State by State Differences

While the FMLA provides a minimum bar for protection across the country, many state have passed laws to expand the protection an employee would otherwise receive under the FMLA.

For example, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington, and DC have all reduced the number of employees needed before an employer is required to provide employees the protections of the FMLA.  California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Maryland, New Jersey, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, Wisconsin and DC have expanded the definition of a family member for FMLA protections within their states—primarily to include siblings, civil unions, domestic partners, same-sex partners, and in-laws.  In an even more substantial move California, New Jersey, Rhode Island, and New York all have passed laws requiring paid FMLA leave.

This is just a few of the state to state changes, there are several states which require employers to provide even more than the 12 weeks of leave necessitated by the FMLA. There are even a few states that have expanded the situations where you can take leave to include things like going to your kid’s school events.

Mr. Brown’s FMLA Case

Mr. Brown’s lawsuit started all the way back in 2013 and included both retaliation and interference claims under the FMLA. Just about a month ago, it finally moved past the summary judgment phase with a judge ruling in favor of Mr. Brown—allowing the case to be seen by a jury.

Rock-Tenn had long been arguing that the elbow “bump” Mr. Brown’s wife complained of was not a health condition covered by the FMLA because it did not involve “continuing treatment.” They also challenged the seriousness of the elbow bump as an injury. The court bought neither argument. Ms. Brown had seen a doctor several times for her elbow problems and ultimately the medical issue Mr. Brown was leaving for was providing emotional support due to ongoing anxiety issues. This was the actual cause behind his request for FMLA leave.

Mr. Brown’s case is far from over, but he will have his day in court. The idea that an employee could be put in a position where they have to choose between their family’s health and their job is a hard pill to swallow. That is why FMLA rights exist. Knowing your rights as an employee and your duties as an employer can help avoid the heartbreak of such a choice—or of a costly lawsuit.

Movement to “Ban the Box” Surges Across the Nation

An estimated 70 to 100 million people in the U.S. currently have some sort criminal background.  That’s between one in three and one in four people in the whole United States.  These criminal records, no matter how minor the offense, can be a real hurdle when looking for a job.  There is a real potential that an employer, seeing a prospective employee checked a box on their application indicating criminal history, would reject that application on that basis alone.

If the goal of our criminal justice system is to rehabilitate, barring ex-criminals from gainful employment out of hand is obviously far from ideal.  With this in mind, a movement to “Ban the Box” has swept across the nation.  24 states, many passing laws just this year, have passed laws barring public employers, private employers, or both from inquiring about criminal background on a job application.  To make matters even more complicated, more than 150 individual cities and counties have passed similar laws that apply just in those smaller jurisdictions.

The spread of these laws is still on the rise, just around a week ago Los Angeles County passed their own Ban the Box ordinance.  Connecticut has recently passed a Ban the Box law that will take effect January 1, 2017.  On November 30th, the federal government and the Obama administration even finalized regulations preventing the federal government from asking about an applicants’ criminal background before a job has been offered.  With the upsurge in “Ban the Box” laws, the question becomes fairly simple.  What do these laws mean for employers and employees?

Ban the Box Explained

While the details of any given Ban the Box law vary slightly from law to law, they all have the same basic goal.  They make it illegal for the type of employers named by the law to include questions or check-boxes on employment applications asking about the criminal background of an applicant.  They don’t, by themselves, prevent an employer from asking about criminal history altogether.  However, an employer must raise these questions later in the hiring process.  While violations of Ban the Box rules don’t generally allow for private lawsuits from applicants, applicants can report violations to the state who will then follow up with fines or a lawsuit of their own.

As mentioned above, with so many different places creating their own Ban the Box rules the exact boundaries of those rules can vary from place to place.  Depending on where an employer operates, there can be exceptions "Ban the Box"to Ban the Box rules for certain types of jobs—usually positions that are especially safety sensitive.  However, exactly what positions are considered “safety sensitive” is in and of itself a complicated legal concept that varies from state to state.  Employers seeking to avoid the legal troubles of a Ban the Box violation should speak to an employment law attorney to learn whether there is a Ban the Box law in effect where they operate and if there are any exceptions for the type of positions they are offering.

Beyond the Box: Other Employer Restrictions Regarding Criminal Backgrounds

Ban the box is the tip of the iceberg for state to state differences in how employers must approach an employee’s, or potential employee’s, criminal background.  Different states, and even cities and counties within those states, have their own wildly varying laws placing restrictions on either private employers, public employers, or both when it comes to approaching a job applicant or employee’s criminal background.

Depending on where they are an employer may be restricted as to asking about arrests that did not result in a conviction, criminal records which have been sealed or expunged, older criminal records (usually allowing for records no more than five to seven years old), certain types of crimes, or criminal convictions unrelated to the actual position sought.  While these laws have not seen the same rapid spread in recent years as Ban the Box, they continue to be passed nationwide.

In fact, earlier this year, Pennsylvania passed one of the most sweeping laws on the issue to date—albeit with a slightly different approach.  Pennsylvania’s new law requires law enforcement to remove records of arrests after three years have passed without a conviction.  It also allows individuals to petition to limit access to most non-felonies—with an exception for misdemeanors such as sex offenses, child abuse, or witness intimidation—on their criminal records after ten yeas free from arrest or imprisonment.  This law, coupled with the fact the Pennsylvania already bars all employers from inquiring about arrests that don’t lead to convictions, have left Pennsylvania with some of the nation’s strongest employment protections for former criminal offenders.

Are These Laws for the Best?

Ultimately, these laws are put in place to prevent returning criminal offenders from being shut out of employment opportunities before they get a chance to show their merits.  Those opposed to the spread of Ban the Box argue that employers are best suited to knowing their own employment needs and these sorts of restrictions needlessly increase the costs associated with hiring.  They argue that, especially in light of other restrictions on accessing criminal backgrounds, these laws can leave employers in situations where they are left without information they would consider crucial to a hiring or employment decision.

However, despite these objections, it seems more likely that the only way this would truly save costs when hiring for any position that wouldn’t be subject to the common exceptions is if the employer used criminal background as a quick way to disqualify candidates.  Where an employer uses criminal history in this way, it creates a serious roadblock to the rehabilitation and reintegration into society of former criminal offenders.

There is nowhere that employers are totally banned from inquiring into criminal history.  Ban the Box rules are exclusively a timing related restriction, preventing applications asking about criminal history.  Although there are limitations on how background checks can be used a check made as a contingency to employment will likely reveal any criminal history that could be an issue.  However, as seen in Pennsylvania, the limitations on criminal background checks are becoming further reaching.  There is a real push and pull between the interests of an employer in making informed employment decisions and the interests of a former criminal offender—and society as a whole—in a system that provides the best possible chance for rehabilitation.  That being said, a system where an offender is denied that chance outright before the word go is almost certainly not the right one.

Marijuana in the Workplace: Employee Protection as Legalization Spreads

This election has seen a huge boom in marijuana legalization. There are now 26 different states with marijuana legalized in some form or another. Of these states, eight have legalized recreational and medical use while the rest have restricted legalization to medical use.  In all these states, the legislature will have to deal with the unanswered question: how should marijuana be dealt with in the workplace?

Cases on the issue have already begun in many different contexts. Just recently the Massachusetts Superior Court addressed the issue of whether an employer needs to make accommodations due to disability for an employee’s medical marijuana use.  Massachusetts rules that despite the fact that the marijuana was prescribed to treat the employees Crohn’s disease, an employer is still under no obligation to accommodate such use.

This ruling is in line with a trend across the nation.  States are legalizing marijuana, but having difficulty in deciding how or whether to protect its use in an employment context. The approach has been different state to state—as it must be with marijuana illegal at a federal level—and has seen states dealing with employment issues from disability to off duty use, leading to adverse action to employment benefits to workers’ compensation.

Employees Treating Disabilities with Medical Marijuana

Massachusetts’ take on disability is not surprising. While the outer limits of employee protection based on disability is often determined by state law, the minimum protection is governed by the American’s with Disabilities Act (ADA).  The ADA is a federal act protecting against disability discrimination.  However, it explicitly does not it does not cover employees or applicants who engage in illegal use of drugs.  Since marijuana is federally illegal, this means that marijuana use cannot be a protected disability under the ADA. wellness programs

As mentioned above, states can expand their disability protections beyond the floor set by the ADA.  However, many states have not exactly been in a rush to do so when it comes to marijuana use.  Just like Massachusetts, Oregon courts have ruled that an employer need not make accommodations for medical marijuana use so long as it is federally illegal.  In California, the California Supreme Court ruled that employers have no need to accommodate medical marijuana use even when that use is off duty.  Although, it should be noted that this was decided prior to recreational legalization.

This being said, there have been other states that have passed laws protecting medical marijuana users as disabled. Arizona, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Manie, Minnesota, and Nevada all have laws protecting employees who use medical marijuana against adverse action (firing, failure to hire, refusal of promotions, etc.) due to their disability.  The exact nature and scope of these rules varies state to state, but they all have the ultimate effect of protecting employees who use medical marijuana by placing some type of duty to accommodate that use on employers.

Punishing Off-Duty Use?

While disability laws deal with how an employer must deal with prescribed marijuana use, some states have dealt with off duty marijuana use in more broad strokes—deciding how marijuana use factors into a wrongful termination lawsuit.  Wrongful termination is any sort of firing which is contrary to law.  Disability discrimination can give rise to a wrongful termination lawsuit, but the cause of action is much broader than discrimination and includes basically any type of illegal firing.

The most famous of these cases occurred in Colorado after Dish Network fired an employee for off duty medical marijuana use. The firing took place before marijuana was made recreationally legal in the state, but the ruling occurred after this change.

The court ruled in favor of Dish Network. They decided that, despite Colorado law forbidding employers from firing an employee based on their legal off duty activities, an employer could freely fire an employee for off duty marijuana use so long as marijuana is federally illegal.  Thus, the employee was not wrongfully terminated. Similar rulings have been also been reached in Michigan and Washington.

Medical Marijuana Disqualifying Employees From Unemployment Benefits

Very few states have actually dealt with the issue of medical marijuana use and how it affects unemployment benefits.  Only two states have really dealt with the issue and they were unhelpful enough to come to opposite conclusions.

In Colorado, an employee fired for marijuana use—even if it is off duty prescribed medical marijuana use—is disqualified from unemployment benefits. Michigan, on the other hand, has determined that an employee cannot be disqualified from unemployment benefits for their lawful off duty marijuana use.

Workers Compensation and Cannabis

Much like unemployment benefits, rulings have been unfortunately sparse when it comes to workers’ compensation and medical marijuana. Workers compensation laws protect employers from liability in exchange for an agreement to pay for any injuries that take place in the workplace, regardless of cause.

Once again, the rulings have been contrary to one another depending on the state. Maine has ruled that workers’ compensation can’t require an employer to pay for medical marijuana prescribed as a result of a workplace injury.  New Mexico, however, has held that employers must pay for such treatment when it is prescribed.

Marijuana in Federal Workplaces

Even where marijuana has been legalized at a state level, many state employers may still be regulated by the federal Drug Free Workplace Act. This law requires all federal contractors and employers receiving federal grants to maintain a zero-tolerance policy towards any federally illegal drug use.

These workplaces may find themselves in a conflict between state and federal law. In these cases, federal law will generally win out.  What’s more, where a position is safety sensitive, employers may also choose to implement a zero-tolerance policy.  Safety sensitive is a very broad classification and such a classification, coupled with a zero-tolerance policy, will likely alter an employee’s rights under state law.

Complicated Cannabis: Evolving Law

The interactions between marijuana use and employment law are far from fixed and will continue to grow more complicated as the federal standing of marijuana forces all these interactions to be a question of state law. The states have already shown that they are far from in agreement as to how the issues should be approached and most states where marijuana is legalized in some form have not even begun to address these issues.

There are arguments on both sides for how the law should evolve. An employer would certainly not be criticized for firing an employee who showed up to work drunk. However, it would be a different matter if they fired that employee for drinking in their own home while off duty. While this is obviously not a perfect analogy, just as marijuana is not completely analogous to alcohol, it does highlight the question of whether how marijuana is viewed and treated on a legal level will change as recreational use becomes more widespread. Marijuana is now legal in more states than it is not, the law will have to scramble to keep up with the appropriate rights and duties of employers and employees.

Employment Rights in a Religious Work Place: The Ministerial Exception

Kate Drumgoole, New Jersey native, loved her job. She worked for Paramus Catholic High School as a guidance counselor and women’s basketball coach.  She also loves her wife, a fact the school was unaware of until recently.  Upon learning of Ms. Drumgoole’s marriage, the school fired her.  Ms. Drumgoole has since filed an employment discrimination lawsuit against Paramus.

Employers are forbidden from taking adverse employment action, such as firing an employee, based on a protected class like gender, race, or national origin. Sexual orientation, while not considered a protected class in every state, is a recognized protected class in New Jersey and has been considered a protected class by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission for several years now. However, Paramus argues that they are protected by their First Amendment freedom of religion in firing Ms. Drumgoole for not living according to the tenets of their faith.  In her lawsuit, Ms. Drumgoole contests this allegation, pointing out that Paramus employs faculty members who are divorced or violate other Catholic tenets.

Ms. Drumgoole is not alone; more than 50 people have been fired or had employment offers rescinded by religious institutions for similar reasons since 2010. An Indiana Catholic School recently fired a teacher of purely secular topics after it came to her attention she used in vitro fertilization to become pregnant—calling her a “grave immoral sinner.”  An Ohio woman was fired by a religious institution earlier this year over being artificially inseminated. In Florida, a woman was fired for becoming pregnant outside of marriage.

Discrimination based on pregnancy is well established as gender discrimination, a federally protected class throughout the U.S. So how can religious institutions make employment decisions based on such clearly discriminatory reasons without fear of lawsuits such as Mrs. Drumgoole’s?  The answer lies in the interplay between employment rights and freedom of religion—the ministerial exception.

The Ministerial Exception and the Hosanna Case

To preserve the separation of church and state, as well as the free exercise of religion, employment law has a carve out for religious institutions, allowing them to favor those who share their beliefs. The Ministerial exception is so named because the employees who typically embody this carve out are church minsters. The exception is an affirmative defense—it must be proved by a religious employer seeking its refuge—which has historically been interpreted to allow discrimination on the basis of religion, but not as a loophole to any neutrally applied valid law. It specifically wasn’t generally considered an exception to non-religious discrimination.  This changed with the 2012 Supreme Court case which first recognized the ministerial exception—Hossana-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church v. EEOC.

The case was brought by Cheryl Perich, an ordained teacher at a Hossana who went on disability leave after she was diagnosed with narcolepsy. After six months leave, Hosanna asked Ms. Perich to resign.  Ms. Perich refused and threatened a lawsuit for violation of the American’s With Disabilities Act which requires employers to make reasonable accommodations for employee’s with disabilities and forbids discrimination based on an employee’s disability.  Hosanna fired Perich, explicitly over her disability.  Perich sued.

Unfortunately for her, the Supreme Court unanimously came out in favor of a particularly strong version of the ministerial exception. They ruled that employees who have a role in conveying the Church’s message and carrying out its mission” are barred by the First Amendment from suing over employment discrimination. This broad protection meant that religious institutions are totally insulated from discrimination lawsuits so long as the person suing them counts as a “minister.” This left the question, who qualifies as a minister.

Perich was ordained, but spent only a small portion of her time teaching anything that had to do with religion. However, the Court certainly felt she qualified as a minister. Unfortunately, the Court was also intentionally sparse on exactly why. They wanted to avoid a clearly delineated test for fear of excluding religions with different traditions. They did make it clear that the portion of time spent with religious duties is a factor, but not a deciding one on its own. However, as an ordained minister in both Hosanna and her own eyes, the Court felt there was little doubt Perich was a minister.

The Legal Landscape After Hosanna

After Hosanna, many have questioned the breadth of the ministerial exception.  The exception has seen some abuse. Catholic schools adding “minister” to every employee’s job description from teachers to receptionists to janitors.  Religious institutions often supplement this argument by making all employees sign a contract agreeing to uphold the tenets of their faith.

The flip side to this potential is the sanctity of church and state. Should a religious institution be legally forced to employ somebody who conflicts with their beliefs? As an extreme example, a synagogue shouldn’t have to employ a Holocaust denier.

The happy medium likely extends the exception more narrowly, to people whose positions implicate primarily religious duties. As it stands, the ministerial exception is extremely broad. The current state of the law bars ministers from bringing any employment discrimination or retaliation against a religious employer, regardless of whether the discrimination is related to religious tenets. As mentioned above, this clarification is a tricky prospect to say the least due to the differences between religions.

The truth is, since Hosanna the courts have done more to expand the exception than limit it.  There are some courts, such as this year’s Fratello v. Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York, which have applied Hosanna as a balancing factor test looking at whether 1) the school held the employee out to the world as a minister, (2) the employee’s title connoted a religious “calling,” (3) the employee held themselves out as a minister and (4) the employee had religious responsibilities.  However, prior to this case the vast majority of courts have given much more deference to the religious organization’s categorization of an employee.

The cases discussed in the beginning of this article all deal with employees with completely or primarily non-secular duties. Cases like Ms. Drumgoole’s, pitting protected groups and employment discrimination against the ministerial exception, will help winnow down the exception and assist courts in understanding when a religious institution is properly due the protections of the First Amendment. Generally, the Constitution provides rights to protect yourself—not assert those rights as a license to discriminate or diminish the rights of others.

South Dakota Initiative Fuels Right to Work Debate

Right to work laws have been a center of controversy in recent years, with a number of laws facing constitutional challenges in the courts. You might hear this and be surprised, as “right to work” certainly doesn’t sound like a controversial topic. Pretty much everybody would agree that reducing unemployment is a good thing—if that was what right to work meant.

While right to work sounds purely innocuous, the name is a bit of a misnomer—crafted to intentionally frame a more controversial policy point in as positive a light as possible. The confusingly named right to work actually deals with an employee’s choices when it comes to joining or not joining a union.

The Current Situation

The laws are a product of a federal law from 1947 called the Taft-Hartley Act. The act prohibited employers from running closed shops—agreements where they only hire unionized workers.  However, it allowed union shops—agreements where employees are required to join a particular union within a certain period of time after being hired.  The act also has a section which allows states to ban union shops as well.

The laws based on this section are right to work laws and are, at this point, exclusively state law. While they vary state to state, they all do essentially the same thing—allow an employee to opt out of paying union dues while still benefitting from union representation. Due to the exclusive bargaining agreements unions provided by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), The laws do not apply to federal workers, railroad workers, and airline workers.

There are currently twenty-six states which have right to work laws: Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Kansas, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Nebraska, Nevada, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.

Right to work tends to be a conservative agenda point, with liberal interests preferring stronger unions with more money to advocate for higher wages and greater employee rights. Those supporting right to work laws argue that employees should not be forced to pay a union whose positions they do not agree with—often framing the laws as a free speech issue.

Critics respond that you are already allowed to opt out of union political activities and only pay for representation as to your wages and rights in the workplace. They argue that “right to work” is a thinly veiled attack on the strength of unions by taking money out of their pockets—allowing so-called “free rider” employees to get all the benefit of a union without actually paying anything. After all, many employees would take the representation for free if it’s an option, regardless of their opinions about the union.

South Dakota’s Initiative 23

As mentioned above, South Dakota is among the states that have enacted a right to work law.  However, they have certainly been listening to the arguments of right to work critics, as last week they have proposed a new law—Initiative 23—which allows corporate and non-profit organizations–including unions–to charge for services rendered.  This essentially has the effect of allowing unions to charge employees they represent regardless of whether somebody chooses to join that union.

This a huge move as South Dakota is one of the first states to ever introduce a right to work law, doing so via a state constitutional amendment in 1946. Proponents of the law argue that it allows unions to charge for actual services rendered while still allowing employees to opt out of a union if they disagree with its position. Obviously, its opponents say that it’s simply a loophole to right to work—essentially removing any protections provided by South Dakota’s law.

The critics are right to a degree, the initiative neuters South Dakota’s right to work law in everything but the most technical sense. However, this law highlights a nationwide trend of struggle back and forth over whether these right to work laws should exist in the first place.

A Nationwide Controversy

Just this year, shortly after Wisconsin adopted a right to work law, a Wisconsin Circuit Court Judge ruled Wisconsin’s right to work law unconstitutional. The law itself was incredibly controversial even before this ruling, so unpopular that it led to an unsuccessful attempt to recall Wisconsin’s Governor Scott Walker.  The court’s ruling was based on an argument that right to work provisions are unconstitutional takings.

This argument is currently on appeal to the Wisconsin Supreme Court, and frankly is unlikely to stand. Takings deals with the government taking all or part of property from a private party, either through eminent domain (the government simply laying claim to the property) or through regulation removing all use for the property.  Not only does takings generally deal with real property (houses and land and such), making it fairly unsuited to an argument regarding  the potential profits from services provided by a union, the 7th Circuit—of which Wisconsin is a part—has explicitly considered and rejected the argument of takings when it comes to the constitutionality of right to work laws.  The 7th Circuit ruling argued that unions are compensated for their representation by their government sanctioned exclusive bargaining position with employers.

While unlikely to succeed, this isn’t the first challenge of its type or even the only recent one. The constitutionality of Indiana’s right to work law was challenged back in 2012, with the law only found constitutional as recently as 2014. The Indiana case had a bit of a twist to it, in that the Indiana Constitution explicitly guarantees that no person’s services shall be demanded without just compensation.  Unions argued that this guaranteed them pay for the bargaining service they provided. Ultimately the courts disagreed; they ruled that unions were not required to become exclusive bargaining representatives and their choice to accept that role placed responsibilities on them along with the rights it provided.

Recent Debate Over a Federal Right to Work

The struggle over right to work acts hasn’t just pushed in the direction of curtailing these types of laws. Earlier this year, the Supreme Court of the United States dealt with a case with the potential to create what was essentially a federal right to work—applying to all public employees.

The issue was hotly debated, framing the issue as “free riders” versus “compelled passengers.” To highlight just how contentious this issue is, after the death of Justice Anthony Scalia, the Supreme Court was forced to declare a 4-4 deadlock on the issue.  Petitioners have requested a rehearing, but it will have to wait for the next presidency and appointment of a ninth Justice as the conservative side of Congress has made it clear they won’t consider any appointee suggested by the Obama administration.

Right to work is a back and forth battle throughout the country. On one side, the laws provide workers more options, but at the same time they take money away from unions who would use it to negotiate higher wages and better workers’ rights. The direction these laws will take is something only the future can reveal.