Category Archives: Labor In The News

Gov. Patrick Refuses to Sign Pro Worker Legislation

In a major concession to employers, on February 25 Governor Patrick, like Mitt Romney before him, refused to sign legislation designed to strengthen penalties imposed on employers that violate state wage and hour laws, instead sending it back to the legislature with a demand that they water down the law. At issue was S. 1059, which would have reinstated automatic treble damages for employees who prevail in wage and hour lawsuits against their employers. Patrick balked at signing the law, instructing lawmakers to fashion a bill based on the weaker Federal Fair Labor Standards Act.

In 1993, the Legislature significantly strengthened Massachusetts wage and hour laws, giving enforcement power to the Attorney General and giving employees the right to sue directly. Under the 1993 law, employees who prevailed in their suits were entitled to recover their attorney’s fees, and also to recover triple damages for the violations. For years, courts routinely upheld triple damages in such cases. Unfortunately, in 2005, the Supreme Judicial Court, in the case Weidman v. The Bradford Group, Inc., 444 Mass. 698 (2005), ruled that judges had the discretion to not award triple damages. The General Court, in response to Weidman, passed bills that clearly reiterated the legislature’s intent that triple damages be mandatory, and not subject to a judge’s discretion. In the last session, then Governor Romney vetoed the bill. Senate Democrats, seeking to restore worker protections, did not anticipate the same treatment from a Democrat Governor. But that’s what they got. The governor refused to sign the bill, instead calling for the General Court to go easy on employers who violate the law “in good faith, on the advice of counsel and guidance from the governmental authorities.” The federal law, which is weaker than state law in many areas, allows employers to avoid paying extra damages based on a “good faith” defense.

Unfortunately, this action by the governor is not entirely surprising. While Gov. Patrick campaigned as a friend to workers, he spent much of his legal career making millions representing management, including management at the aggressively anti-union Coca-Cola, and his wife is a management-side lawyer at one of the corporate law firms in Boston. Patrick’s action is particularly galling in that he calls on the state to mimic weaker federal law. Of course, Massachusetts prides itself on providing greater protection for workers than federal law requires. For example, Massachusetts protects workers from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, federal law does not. Indeed, Massachusetts just raised the minimum wage to $8.00 per hour, the second highest in the nation (the minimum wage in Washington State is $8.07), while the federal minimum wage remains at $5.85. So the governor is asking the General Court to take a step backwards.

The Governor’s plea for poor employers who have to pay their employees damages rings particularly hallow. We’re talking about a group of employers who have been found to have unlawfully not paid their workers! Patrick calls triple damages “unfairly punitive” to employers, but what about the workers who aren’t paid in the first place? Again, prevailing workers were routinely awarded treble damages prior to 2005. Did paying for their sins cause our workforce to crumble? No, in fact, the “triple damages era” corresponded with the economic boom of the 1990s. The bottom line is that this legislation was passed to reinstate what the General Court intended all along – that employers be punished when they fail to pay their employees in accordance with the law. Governor Patrick’s refusal to sign it stifles this worthy goal.

Legislature Amends Health Insurance Law

On July 16, 2007, the Massachusetts legislature amended the law to enable cities and towns to more easily join the Group Insurance Commission for the provision of health insurance to municipal employees.  The Group Insurance Commission (GIC) is the entity that provides health insurance for state employees.  The legislation specifically amends Section 19 of Chapter 32B, providing for coalition bargaining for health insurance, was drafted by a bipartisan group of labor and management representatives.

Read a summary of the bill

Mass Supreme Judicial Court agrees to review decision allowing Police Chief to order polygraph of Employee

Recently, in Furtado v. Town of Plymouth, 69 Mass.App.Ct. 319 (June 11, 2007), the Massachusetts Appeal court ruled that a police officer can be forced to submit to a lie detector examination under threat of discipline in most circumstances. As noted in our report of the case on June 28, Sandulli Grace attorneys, on behalf of the Massachusetts Coalition of Police, conferred with the officer’s attorneys and filed an amicus (friend of the court) brief with the Supreme Judicial Court, urging that the Court accept review of the case and overturn this troubling decision.

On September 11, 2007, the Supreme Judicial Court granted the request to review the case, and it will now be heard by the full Court. We will, of course, continue to work with Officer Furtado’s attorneys, and will be filing a full Amicus Brief addressing all issues in the case. It is our hope that the SJC will overturn the Appeals Court decision, and affirm the legislature’s intent to prohibit employers from even trying to force their employees to undergo these junk science tests. As always, we’ll keep you posted.

New Appointment to Massachusetts Labor Relations Commission

The Massachusetts Labor Relations Commission appointed a new Chairman effective Monday, August 27, 2007.  Michael A. Byrnes, who worked for the past six years as a business agent for the National Conference of Firemen & Oilers, Local 3, SEIU, AFL-CIO, has been appointed to a five-year term at the LRC. Former Chairman John Jesensky is now a commissioner and will serve out his term until 2010. Commissioner Paul O’Neill’s term ends next summer.

Before becoming a union business agent, Mr. Byrnes worked for the Massachusetts Department of Corrections and then the MBTA as a management representative. At the start of his legal career, he worked as an associate at the management-side law firm of Murphy, Hesse, Toomey & Lehane. He was admitted to the bar in 1996, after earning his B.A. from Harvard University and his J.D. from Northeastern University Law School.