Category Archives: In Our Opinion…

Families First Coronavirus Response Act: A Brief Explanation

Under a new federal law, titled the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA), the federal government has created several new programs to assist workers during the current crisis. There are now ten (10) additional fully paid sick days for employees unable to work either because of their own health concerns or those of others in the employee’s care. The same 10 paid leave days (at 2/3 pay, up to $200/day) may also be used to care for children at home due to school closures. These ten days are in addition to any other contractual benefit. The eligibility requirements to use these days are much less stringent than those in most collective bargaining agreements or employer policies. In addition, the 12 weeks of leave under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) may now be used to stay home with children whose schools are closed. Unlike other forms of FMLA leave, employers must compensate employees at 2/3 of their pay, up to $200/day, for this entire leave period.

While the laws apply to all state and local employees (in addition to private sector employers with fewer than 500 employees), the law allows employers to exempt from its coverage “emergency responders,” a category that includes police officers, fire fighters, public health, and even public works personnel. However, we believe, based on case precedents in Massachusetts, that the decision of whether or not to exempt emergency responders, including police officers and firefighters, is a mandatory subject of bargaining under the Mass. collective bargaining law– meaning that a union can require a city or town to negotiate before it adopts the emergency responder exemption. If your city/town has already adopted the exemption without consulting with your union, you can demand that they rescind their acceptance of it and first bargain with your union. However, we know that some cities and towns have agreed to better benefits for emergency responders than are provided by this new law, so whether or not to demand inclusion in these benefits must be evaluated for each local union.

Attached is the U.S. Department of Labor’s synopsis of the FFCRA (which is available at https://www.dol.gov/agencies/whd/pandemic/ffcra-employee-paid-leave).
This blog entry is for general informational purposes only. There are 124 pages of regulations and explanations issued by the U.S. Department of Labor to implement the new law. Before any union or individual takes any specific action under the FFCRA, consultation with a union official or attorney is strongly advised.

Sandulli Grace, P.C. and the Massachusetts Coalition of Police Present the next 2019 Training on December 4, 2019

Sandulli Grace, P.C. and the Massachusetts Coalition of Police are proud to announce our third 2019 police union training. Sandulli Grace and MassCOP believe in empowering MassCOP’s local unions through education, to create a stronger, safer environment for members. Our 2019 training sessions will give you tools to enforce your rights and improve your members’ working conditions.

Basics Trainings

In the past two years, MassCOP and Sandulli Grace have presented multiple “basics” trainings to our police unions. We believe there is a continued need for these trainings, as unions continue to elect new leaders, and new legal challenges present themselves every day. Topics include:

  • Grievance Processing
  • Discipline
  • Bargaining
  • Stress in the Workplace

Whether you are newly elected, or a seasoned union leader looking for ideas on how to make your job easier and more effective, these basics trainings can give you helpful information about issues that local unions face every day.

Bring Your Contract!

We intend this training to be interactive and practical, so we ask each person to please bring a copy of your collective bargaining agreement so that we can discuss real situations. PARTICIPATION IS NOT NECESSARY, BUT IT ADDS TO EVERYONE’S EXPERIENCE! WE STRONGLY ENCOURAGE IT! We will help you interpret your contract’s provisions on grievance processing and appealing discipline, and we will discuss what proposals you might want to make in your next round of bargaining.

How to Register

Our next 2019 training will be held on Wednesday, December 4, 2019 from 10:00 a.m. – 2:00 p.m. at the American Legion Hall, 199 Federal Furnace Rd, Plymouth, MA 02360. Please see the attached flyer. The cost is $55 per person. Payment can be by check mailed to Gia Capozzi at Sandulli Grace, P.C., 44 School Street, Suite 1100, Boston, MA 02018, or by credit card at this link:
https://www.eventbrite.com/e/basics-training-2019-tickets-74856835811.

We welcome your feedback regarding the location and content of these training sessions. Please do not hesitate to contact us with questions or suggestions at gcapozzi@sandulligrace.com.

Download the event flyer

Sandulli Grace, P.C. and the Massachusetts Coalition of Police Present the next 2019 Training

Sandulli Grace, P.C. and the Massachusetts Coalition of Police are proud to announce our third 2019 police union training. Sandulli Grace and MassCOP believe in empowering MassCOP’s local unions through education, to create a stronger, safer environment for members. Our 2019 training sessions will give you tools to enforce your rights and improve your members’ working conditions.

Basics Trainings

In the past two years, MassCOP and Sandulli Grace have presented multiple “basics” trainings to our police unions. We believe there is a continued need for these trainings, as unions continue to elect new leaders, and new legal challenges present themselves every day. Topics include:

  • Grievance Processing
  • Discipline
  • Bargaining
  • Stress in the Workplace

Whether you are newly elected, or a seasoned union leader looking for ideas on how to make your job easier and more effective, these basics trainings can give you helpful information about issues that local unions face every day.

Bring Your Contract!

We intend this training to be interactive and practical, so we ask each person to please bring a copy of your collective bargaining agreement so that we can discuss real situations. PARTICIPATION IS NOT NECESSARY, BUT IT ADDS TO EVERYONE’S EXPERIENCE! WE STRONGLY ENCOURAGE IT! We will help you interpret your contract’s provisions on grievance processing and appealing discipline, and we will discuss what proposals you might want to make in your next round of bargaining.

How to Register

Our next 2019 training will be held on Wednesday, December 4, 2019 from 10:00 a.m. – 2:00 p.m. at the American Legion Hall, 199 Federal Furnace Rd, Plymouth, MA 02360. Please see the attached flyer. The cost is $55 per person. Payment can be by check mailed to Gia Capozzi at Sandulli Grace, P.C., 44 School Street, Suite 1100, Boston, MA 02018, or by credit card at this link:
https://www.eventbrite.com/e/basics-training-2019-tickets-74856835811.

We welcome your feedback regarding the location and content of these training sessions. Please do not hesitate to contact us with questions or suggestions at gcapozzi@sandulligrace.com.

Download the event flyer

Civil Service Commission Upholds Termination Of African American Boston Firefighter For Social Media Posts But Also Orders Investigation Into Boston Fire Department

In Rowe v. Boston Fire Department (D1-18-074), issued on August 29, 2019, the Civil Service Commission upheld the discharge of Boston Firefighter Octavius Rowe for the content of his social media posts and podcasts. The Commission’s summary of its decision states:

Firefighter Rowe maintained a presence on social media and participated in various podcasts inwhich he regularly identified himself as a Boston firefighter. As part of those same public forums, he repeatedly spoke, wrote and/or posted bigoted comments that violate the norms of decency and various rules and regulations of the Boston Fire Department, including conduct unbecoming a firefighter, justifying his termination. Firefighter Rowe’s public posts and statements included: referring to the long-time head of the Boston Urban League as a “shoe-shine Negro”; referring to the then-Boston Police Superintendent (now Commissioner) as a “feckless, jolly black face”; a statement that black men should not share their “genetic material” with a “filthy, filthy white woman” and that “laying with white women is like spitting in your mother’s womb”; a post listing the date, time and location (including the name of the school and a map) where Firefighter Rowe objects to young boys and girls holding hands with members of the same sex; multiple references to gay men as “homophiles”; a reference to so-called “homophiles” seeking to “normalize homophilia particularly among children in order to GAIN and EASE sexual access to them”; references to lesbians as “lez-beasts”; a reply to a person online stating: “You’re QUEER. You’re not significant enough for me to troll”; another online reply stating: “Why haven’t any homophiles been killed by Police?”; a picture of Firefighter Rowe, with a clenched fist, wearing a t-shirt with a stick figure with Pan-African colors kicking in the groin a stick figure with LGBTQ colors; a reference to the head of the Boston Chapter of Black Lives Matter, a Boston resident, as a person with: “Homophile/Trans/Femm Interests”; a reference to Black Lives Matter as “HOMOPHILES LIVES MATTER”; a reference to the leaders of Black Lives Matter as “slowwitted, uniformed agents of sexuality confusion/cooning” who “cannot have access to our children.”; a reference to a black entertainer as a “COM-PLETE bitch”; and a reference to “SmallHats (So-called Jews)”.

As if upholding of the termination were not controversial enough, the Commission went on to take the extraordinary step of initiating its own inquiry into how the Boston Fire Department (BFD) handled the investigation of a white firefighter accused of using “the n-word in a social media posting that has come to the Commission’s attention in the course of the present appeal.”

Firefighter Rowe mounted three challenges to his termination: (1) no nexus between his conduct and his job; (2) First Amendment protected speech; and (3) disparate treatment1 . The Commision analyzed the First Amendment defense under federal precedents adopted by Mass. courts. The decision rejected the nexus argument because firefighters enter the homes of people, some of whom belong to races/genders/sexual identities Rowe disparaged in his postings. It analyzed the First Amendment argument under traditional caselaw and ultimately agreed with BFD that “there is no basis for concluding that Firefighter’s Rowe’s interest in free speech outweighed BFD’s interest in providing efficient and effective public safety services.”

The disparate treatment contention – that white firefighters’ repugnant social media posts were treated more leniently than Rowe’s – caused the Commission more difficulty. One white firefighter who “posted vile comments regarding Rachel Maddow and Senator Elizabeth Warren” had been forced to resign. Another was also forced to resign, rather than contest his termination, whose “hateful, bigoted postings” included one stating “I Never Ever Trust a Dirty Fucking Muslim.” As part of Rowe’s defense at his hearing, he produced evidence that another white firefighter had also made racist social media posts but had only received a warning from BFD. The Commission rejected the disparate treatment argument, concluding that, regardless of how others may have been treated, Rowe’s conduct was so unacceptable that termination was warranted.

Normally, that would be the end of the case, but the Commission then took the extraordinary step of conducting its own inquiry:

to ascertain what further action should be recommended by the Commission or taken by the BFD to further investigate the allegation that a BFD firefighter has allegedly used the n-word in a social media posting that has come to the Commission’s attention in the course of the present appeal.

As authority for this highly unusual investigation, the Commission’s relied on Section 72 of Chapter 31 (the civil service statute), which states:

The commission or administrator [HRD], upon the request of an appointing authority, shall inquire into the efficiency and conduct of any employee in a civil service position who was appointed by such appointing authority. The commission or the administrator may also conduct such an inquiry at any time without such request by an appointing authority. After conducting an inquiry pursuant to this paragraph, the commission or administrator may recommend to the appointing authority that such employee be removed or may make other appropriate recommendations.” (emphasis added by Commission)

The Commission then ordered BFD within 30 days “to file a written response to this inquiry which should include recommended steps for conducting a further investigation of the above-referenced allegation.”

The lesson from all of this, besides a basic suggestion that employees refrain from categorically criticizing or disparaging any group of people, is to simply stay off of all forms of social media. As this blog has pointed out several times, most recently earlier this month, employees have little to gain and a lot to lose through participation in social media.

1 Disparate treatment occurs when one employee or group of employees is treated differently from another employee or group of employees for the same or similar conduct.

Social Media Will Ruin Your Whole Life, Again

More than four years ago, my colleague Jennifer Smith wrote a blog entry entitled “Social Media Will Ruin Your Whole Life.” The blog detailed how one corporate executive lost her job over one “stupid tweet.” Atty. Smith’s advice to police officers, teachers, and firefighters was “delete your social media accounts now, if you haven’t already.” That advice is even more critical today.

A group called “The Plain View Project” has compiled a database of “public Facebook posts and comments made by current and former police officers” from eight cities around the country. An article disseminated today by LRIS (Labor Relations Information System) explains that, in June, 72 Philadelphia police officers were placed on administrative leave after the department began investigating allegations of racist and offensive Facebook posts by these officers. Since then, 13 of those officers have been notified that the department intends to terminate them; 7 of those 13 have just resigned. Four other officers were suspended for 30 days, three face no discipline, and the remaining face disciplinary action ranging between reprimand and five-day suspension.

Whether you like groups like Plain View Project prying into your Facebook posts or not, it is a reality that these groups exist. In addition, any FB post you’ve ever made is potentially something that could be used to make you look bad by jealous colleagues, spiteful relatives, or anybody else who has an ax to grind with you. The same must be said about all social media, including, but not limited to, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, Tumblr, Pinterest, Imgur, Yelp, and the many others I’ve never heard of.

As a public employee, and particularly one who daily deals directly with the public, you are called upon to evenhandedly and judiciously ply your trade. Whether intended or not, any action you take which in any way calls into question your evenhandedness can potentially get you into trouble.

And, you may ask, what about my First Amendment rights? In 1892, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes tersely articulated a police officer’s First Amendment rights: he “may have a constitutional right to talk politics, but he has no constitutional right to be a policeman.” While there certainly are lines that can be drawn to distinguish public employees’ protected from unprotected speech, do you really want to be a constitutional test case? Are you sufficiently knowledgeable about the intricacies of free speech rights of public employees to be sure that what you post on social media can’t get you in trouble? I would strongly suggest that rather than play Russian Roulette with your career, you stay off social media. Whatever you might gain from participating in social media is dwarfed by what you might lose.

Massachusetts Law Review Publishes Article on Labor Arbitration by Sandulli Grace Attorney

The most recent edition of the Massachusetts Law Review features an article by Sandulli Grace attorney John M. Becker entitled, “The Role of Public Policy in Judicial Review of Massachusetts Public Sector Labor Arbitration Awards.” The article reviews the decision by the Supreme Judicial Court in City of Boston v. Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association, 477 Mass. 434 (2017) in light of the history of court review of labor arbitration in Massachusetts, with a particular focus on public policy. The article discusses three ways in which public policy plays a role in judicial review of arbitration:

  1. the policy in favor of resolving labor disputes through arbitration, and against judicial interference in such disputes;
  2. the public policy exception to labor arbitration awards, a court-created doctrine used to overturn certain decisions by arbitrators that violate public policy; and
  3. the nondelegability doctrine, pursuant to which the courts have found that some arbitration awards (and the collective bargaining agreements they are enforcing) are unenforceable because they impinge on the management rights of the public employer.

In addition to tracing the history of public sector labor arbitration and public policy, Attorney Becker provides his opinions on certain key legal questions, including:

  1. expressing a concern that after a court finds certain CBA language is unenforceable under the nondelegability doctrine, the Union has no opportunity to go back to the bargaining table to obtain a replacement benefit for the one that was lost;
  2. opining that, in cases involving awards reinstating discharged employees, the public policy exception should be restricted to cases in which a specific law requires termination – and only termination – as a punishment for the named offense; and
  3. advocating that the contours of the nondelegablility doctrine should be consistent with cases under G.L. c. 150E defining mandatory and permissive subjects of bargaining.

Many of the cases discussed in the article were litigated by Attorney Becker or other Sandulli Grace attorneys, including: City of Boston v. Boston Police Patrolmen’s Ass’n, 477 Mass. 434 (2017); Adams v. City of Boston, 461 Mass. 602 (2012); City of Boston v. Boston Police Patrolmen’s Ass’n, 443 Mass. 813 (2005); School Comm. of Marshfield v. Marshfield Educ. Ass’n, 84 Mass. App. Ct. 743 (2014); City of Boston v. Police Patrolmen’s Ass’n, 74 Mass. App. Ct. 379 (2009); Boston Police Patrolmen’s Ass’n v. City of Boston, 60 Mass. App. Ct. 672 (2004); and City of Boston v. Boston Police Patrolmen’s Ass’n, 41 Mass. App. Ct. 269 (1996).

Attorney Becker’s article can be found in Massachusetts Law Review Volume 100, No. 2 (March 2019). You can see the full article here. https://www.massbar.org/docs/default-source/publications-document-library/massachusetts-law-review/2018/mlrvol100no2.pdf?sfvrsn=4. The Massachusetts Law Review is published by the Massachusetts Bar Association.

Massachusetts Public Safety Unions Succeed In Passing New Law Protecting Confidentiality Of Stress Counseling For First Responders In Critical Incidents

At the end of December 2018, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker signed into law a new bill that provides important protections for first responders in critical incidents. The signing was the culmination of six years of work by the Massachusetts Law Enforcement Policy Group, which includes the major public safety unions in the Commonwealth. This year’s effort was spearheaded by the Massachusetts Coalition of Police (MassCOP), the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association (BPPA), and the Boston Police Detectives Benevolent Association as part of a coalition of many different groups and interested individuals all pursuing the goal of providing protection to individuals involved in stressful critical incidents.

The law, which is entitled “An Act Relative to Critical Incident Intervention by Emergency Service Providers”, makes communications between emergency service providers, such as police officers, firefighters and EMTs, with crisis intervention personnel confidential and privileged (with certain exceptions). The purpose of the law is to allow first responders at critical incidents to obtain needed counseling and crisis intervention services without having to worry about whether conversations that occur in that context will later be disclosed. Without this law, a stress counselor or other crisis intervention specialist could be forced to testify in court about what a first responder said as part of counseling and treatment. The privilege created by this law is similar to the laws protecting confidentiality of conversations with psychotherapists. These laws recognize that the mental health of these individuals is a priority, and keeping the communications confidential will allow the individuals to participate fully in the counseling without having to worry about whether these conversations will be disclosed in future proceedings.

The law recognizes that stress and trauma experienced by police officers, firefighters, EMTs and other first responders when responding to critical incidents can cause serious long term psychological harm and, in the worst cases, lead to PTSD, substance abuse, and even suicide. Getting stress counselors and other crisis intervention personnel to the scenes of critical incidents to provide assistance to these first responders is crucial in preventing long-term harm, but such intervention will be more effective if all parties know that the communications made in the course of such intervention will be kept confidential.

The new law recognizes that in certain situations, the privilege will not apply. These include situations in which a crisis intervention specialist reasonably believes that the first responder: (1) is an imminent threat of harming himself or others; (2) has engaged in child abuse; or (3) has admitted to committing a crime or violating a law normally enforced by the public safety agency that employs him. The privilege would also not apply to crisis intervention specialists who were themselves first responders or witnesses to the critical incident, or to situations in which the first responder has disclosed the information to a third party (other than his attorney, spouse or psychotherapist).

Third time was a charm for this bill, as this was the third consecutive legislative session in which it was filed. Rep. Edward Coppinger of West Roxbury guided the bill through the committee process in the House, and Sen. Michael Moore carried it through the Senate. Also crucial to the process on the House side were Reps. Hank Naughton, Ted Speliotis, Dan Cahill, Tim Whelan, Tom Walsh and John Lawn. Leaders of the legislative effort, including Larry Calderone of the BPPA, John Nelson of MassCOP and Michael Muse of the Boston Detectives, met with the Governor, Lt. Governor, Speaker of the House DeLeo and Senate President Spilka, among others, to shepherd this bill to success this December.

The text of the law, which is now Chapter 329 of the Acts of 2018, can be found here.

Massachusetts Appeals Court Provides Another Reason For Employees To Join A Union

A recent decision of the Massachusetts Appeals Court provides a warning to employees: some state laws that appear to provide protections to employees cannot be enforced by employees who have suffered abuses. The case provides an excellent example of why joining a union provides employees with better protections from overreaching employers than state laws and the court system.

One of the benefits of being in a union is that you can file grievances under the collective bargaining agreement (CBA) between your union and your employer. The grievance procedure normally covers any violations of the CBA and the CBA usually contains provisions that set your wages, hours and many of the terms and conditions of your job. Going through the grievance procedure (which usually ends with final and binding arbitration by an arbitrator picked by the union and the employer) means you don’t have to go out and get a lawyer, or go to a state agency on your own. Although the union does have control over which cases to take to arbitration, clear violations of the CBA will normally be resolved through the grievance process – either at or before arbitration.

Employees who are not in unions have to rely on a complicated web of state laws – some incorporated in statutes, others embodied in judicial decisions (also known as the “common law”) – to enforce their rights. In some cases, they have to prosecute their claims through state or federal agencies or in state or federal court. These processes are almost always lengthy and complicated, and they usually require the employee to hire a lawyer at his or her own expense.

The recent Appeals Court case of Tortolano v. Lemuel Shattuck Hospital (Tortolano) demonstrates that, even when there appears to be a state law that protects employees, there may be no procedure for employees to use that law in their favor. Tortolano, which was decided by the Massachusetts Appeals Court on August 20, 2018, provides an excellent example of a state law that is not what it seems. Section 30B of Chapter 149 of the Massachusetts General Laws requires employers to pay overtime pay at time and a half for certain non-exempt Massachusetts employees. Andrea M. Tortolano, an employee of the state-run Lemuel Shattuck Hospital, believed that she had not been paid proper overtime for time when she was on call in violation of Section 30B. She went to the Attorney General’s office, which gave her a letter saying that it was not going to pursue the matter, but giving Ms. Tortolano the right to sue for a violation of the statute on her own behalf. But when Tortolano sued, her employer argued that Chapter 149, Section 30B did not give private individuals the right to sue for violation of the law. The only entity that could sue an employer for violating Section 30B was the Attorney General’s office. A judge in the Superior Court agreed with the hospital and dismissed the case, and the Massachusetts Appeals Court affirmed the decision. The Appeals Court essentially held that the Attorney General’s “right to sue” letter wasn’t worth the paper it was printed on. Because the Attorney General decided not to sue, Ms. Tortolano was out of luck.

In reaching the conclusion that individual employees could not sue under the overtime law, the Appeals Court relied on the SJC’s earlier decision in Salvas v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 452 Mass. 337 (2008). In that case, the state’s highest court ruled that there was no private right of action for employees to sue an employer who failed to provide a meal break as required by Section 100 of Chapter 149. The logic of both Tortolano and Salvas is that because some of the provisions of Chapter 149 specifically permit employees to sue on their own (such as Section 148, which provides for timely payment of wages), the provisions that don’t specifically give individual employee the right to sue are only enforceable by the Attorney General.

The lesson of Tortolano and Salvas for unionized employees is this: don’t assume that a statutory right is enforceable on your own. You are better off negotiating these statutory provisions into your CBA and using the grievance procedure (including binding arbitration) to enforce them, thus avoiding the overworked and expensive court and agency processes.

The lesson for non-unionized employees is even clearer: organize!

Read the decision here.

Massachusetts Coalition of Police ADVANCED Training Seminar on Wednesday, October 3, 2018 from 8:30AM to 4:30PM

Sandulli Grace and the Massachusetts Coalition of Police are pleased to announce a day-long “Advanced” training for MCOP officials and members. It will take place on Wednesday, October 3, 2018 at the Doubletree Hotel in Westboro, from 8:30 to 4:30. Click here for a brochure with registration information.

MassCOP believes in empowering its local unions through education to create a stronger, safer environment for its members. Our trainings give you tools to enforce your rights and improve your members’ working conditions.

This advanced training will go beyond our recent “Basics” trainings, which are geared toward new local officials. Our “Advanced” training will be an in-depth discussion of challenging issues that arise day-to-day for police unions. It is geared toward all union members, and union officials with or without prior experience running a union. Topics will include:

• Unfair Labor Practices
• Management Rights
• Just Cause for Discipline
• Health Insurance
• Shootings and Other Critical Incidents
• Injured on Duty Benefits and Disability Retirement
• Regular Retirement Options
• Issues facing Public Safety Dispatchers
• Drafting and Processing Grievances

There will also be a discussion of the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision in Janus v. AFCME Council 93.

Each topic will be taught by a team of Sandulli Grace attorneys. We will provide written materials you can take home with you for future use. There will be time for questions, and practical applications of the concepts discussed. At the end of the training, the attorneys will hold a half-hour “ask the lawyer” forum and take questions about any topic of interest to the attendees. There will be a luncheon, and the day will end with a cocktail reception.

To register, please e-mail Gia Capozzi at GCapozzi@sandulligrace.com.

Any questions can be directed to lpanettiere@sandulligrace.com. You may download the event flyer here

We look forward to assisting you in providing the best representation possible for your members.

Leigh Panettiere
Sandulli Grace, P.C.

Equal Pay For Men And Women Doing Comparable Work: A New Massachusetts Law Takes Effect

On July 1, 2018 a new comprehensive pay equity law took effect in Massachusetts that seeks to eradicate the wage disparities between women and men working in the Commonwealth. See Mass. Gen. Laws c. 149, § 105A, as amended by St. 2016, c. 177, § 2. The new law, which amended an earlier version passed in 1945, is a comprehensive attempt to bring women’s wages to the same level as men’s. According to recent statistics, the average full-time working woman in Massachusetts makes only 84.3 % of the average full-time working man. In addition to making it easier for employees to make claims for unequal pay based on gender, the law also makes it unlawful for employers to prevent their employees from talking about their pay, and prohibits employers from asking about your pay history when you apply for a job.

To understand the background of this significant change in the law, it is necessary to go back to 1945, when Massachusetts became the first state in the nation to enact a law prohibiting employers from paying men and women differently for comparable work. St. 1945, c. 584, § 3. The only exception provided in the law was for pay differences based on seniority. In 1963, the federal government passed a narrower version of the law, which required equal pay for men and women, but only if they were doing equal work, that is, work that required “equal skill, effort, and responsibility” and was “performed under similar working conditions.” 29 U.S.C.A. § 206(d). The federal law had four exceptions: (1) seniority; (2) merit; (3) quantity or quality of production; or (4) “any other factor other than sex.”

After 1963, inquiring minds wanted to know: What’s the difference between the federal law (equal pay for equal work) and the earlier Massachusetts law (equal pay for comparable work)? In the 1990s, a group of food service workers in the Everett Public Schools, with the support of a union, the Massachusetts Teachers Association, decided to find out what “comparable” really meant. The food service workers, who were all women, claimed that they performed work that was comparable to the school janitors, who were all men, but were paid less. After a lengthy trial, a Superior Court judge found in favor of the food service workers. Applying the four-part test of the federal law, the judge found that the food service workers and the janitors performed work that required comparable skill, effort, responsibility and was performed under comparable working conditions. The judge ordered the employer to pay the food service workers the same as the janitors.

The School Committee appealed the decision to the Supreme Judicial Court, which reversed the lower court. The SJC in 1995 (and again in 1998) ruled that the judge had applied the wrong legal standard to the Massachusetts Equal Pay Act. See Jancey v. School Committee of Everett, 421 Mass. 482 (1995) and Jancey v. School Committee of Everett, 427 Mass. 603 (1998). According to the SJC, after applying the four-part test of the federal law, the judge should have applied a fifth test: Were the job duties of the positions being compared similar enough to make comparison practical? Janitors and food service workers have very different job duties, the SJC found, and the law was not intended to compare different types of jobs in this way.

Supporters of equal pay drafted legislation to overturn the result in Jancey, but it wasn’t until 2014 that their efforts came to fruition with the passage of An Act to Establish Pay Equity, which took effect at the beginning of this month. The law retains the standard of equal pay for comparable work, but it defines the standard in a way that removes the fifth test set out in Jancey and effectively overrules that case.

Under the new version of the Massachusetts Equal Pay Act (MEPA), nearly every employer in Massachusetts (except certain domestic and agricultural workers, and federal employees) must pay men and women the same in all aspects of wages and benefits if their jobs require comparable skill, effort and responsibility, and are performed under similar working conditions. There is no requirement that the difference in pay be intentional or the result of discriminatory animus; this is a strict liability standard. An aggrieved employee may file a complaint with the Attorney General or may go directly into Superior Court to challenge a violation of the law. The employee does not need to file a discrimination complaint with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination to challenge an equal pay violation. If the employee succeeds in proving a violation of the law, she is entitled to: (1) the difference in pay going back a maximum of three years; (2) an equal amount in liquidated damages; and (3) reasonable attorneys fees and costs. A complaint must be filed within three years of an employer’s action creating the pay discrepancy or within three years of the employee’s most recent paycheck. NOTE: The employer cannot eliminate gender-based differences in pay by reducing anyone’s pay.

While the new law gives MEPA new life after the Jancey case effectively killed it, it also gives employers new defenses that didn’t exist in the previous law. For example, a difference in pay between men and women does not violate MEPA if it is made pursuant to any of the following reasons:

  1. a seniority system (but employee seniority can’t be affected by pregnancy or family and medical leave);
  2. a merit system;
  3. a system that rewards quality or quantity of production;
  4. the geographic location of the work (if based on legitimate regional differences);
  5. education, training or experience (if reasonably related to the job); or
  6. travel (if travel is a regular and necessary aspect of the job; commuting not included).

There is also an affirmative defense in the law for employers, who can successfully oppose a MEPA claim if they can show:

  1. They conducted a good faith, reasonable self-evaluation of their pay practices;
  2. The evaluation is reasonable in detail and scope;
  3. The evaluation was conducted within three years prior to the filing of the complaint; and
  4. The employer can show reasonable progress towards eliminating any gender-based wage differentials revealed by the evaluation.

In addition to toughening up MEPA, the new law also includes provisions regarding employee and employer discussions of pay and pay history. The law requires employers to allow their employees to discuss their pay with co-workers, or anyone else, for that matter. (The idea here is that allowing employers to gag their employees allows the perpetuation of discriminatory pay practices.) At the same time, the law prohibits employers from disclosing employee pay and salary information to others unless (1) the employee affirmatively consents or (2) the information is a public record, as with public employees.

Furthermore, the law attempts to cut down on the perpetuation of discriminatory practices by prohibiting employers from asking prospective employees about their past salary or salary history. There are exceptions here too:

  1. the employer can confirm prior wage history with former employers if the prospective employee voluntarily provides information about prior pay;
  2. the employer can ask a prospective employee his or her salary expectations for the new position, as long as it doesn’t ask where the expectation came from; and
  3. the employer can ask for prior pay information once it has made a job offer with a compensation package.

For more detailed information about the new law, see the Attorney General’s Overview and Frequently Asked Questions.

The passage of the new, improved MEPA proves that where there is significant opposition to a court interpretation of a law, the legislative process, while sometimes slow, can act to amend the law and effectively overrule the court. Although the neutrality of the court system and its ability to interpret the laws remain intact, the democratically-elected representatives of the people get the last word.