The Massachusetts Wage Act and Union Collective Bargaining Agreements

A few months ago, the First Circuit Court of Appeals answered a key question for union members with claims under the Massachusetts Wage Act.  The case was Cavallaro v. UMASS Memorial Healthcare, 678 F.3d. 1 (1st Cir. 2012), and the question was whether union members, subject to a collective bargaining agreement (“CBA”) containing a ” a broadly-phrased grievance and arbitration provision,” could bring their Wage Act claims in court.  The appeals court said, no.

Although the court reasoned that the employees’ Wage Act claims couldn’t be waived under the CBA, federal law and policy promoted  arbitration provisions and the creation of a uniform federal common law of interpreting CBAs.  These required that the employees submit their claims to the grievance and arbitration procedures of the union contract.

So will union employees get a fair shake from arbitration?  They might.  However, what if the arbitrator refuses to award the employee triple damages under the Wage Act?  These multiple damages are mandatory under the law, and if they are ignored, a plaintiff’s attorney would likely file suit in the district court seeking to vacate the award.  The problem is that the grounds upon which an arbitration award can be challenged are extremely narrow.  One such ground is for a award in “manifest disregard” of the law.  In my opinion, the failure to award treble damages to a victorious arbitration plaintiff, which are clearly required by law, would be such a manifest disregard of the law.

So, what’s the bottom line for union members with wage claims?  Consult a law firm that specializes in these cases and with the know-how to handle a case through union arbitration and beyond if necessary.  Feel free to call us if you have a wage claim, union or non-union, at 617-716-0282.

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