Supreme Court Decision May Limit Ag Workers’ Ability to Fight for Unfairly Withheld Wages
Employers can force workers to settle disputes outside of court, the U.S. Supreme Court said this week, which could negatively affect agricultural workers and employees who earn low wages.
That’s because ag-sector workers, like farmhands and meatpacking-plant employees, often have to turn to class-action lawsuits to collect unfairly withheld or stolen wages.
Monday’s 5-4 decision in Epic Systems v. Lewis originated from three similar lawsuits in which workers challegened their employers’ right to contractually obligate them to individually settle disputes with the help of an arbitrator.
Justice Neil Gorsuch said in the opinion that mandatory arbitration agreements do not violate the National Labor Relations Act, which guarantees employees the right to collective bargaining.
And employers stand to benefit from the decision because workplace disputes can be handled out of court. Epic Systems CEO Judy Faulkner said in a statement that arbitration agreements “protect an employees’ right to file complaints” and provide “a fair forum in which those grievances are addressed.”
But in her dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg argued the decision was “egregiously wrong” and would result in “the underenforcement of federal and state statutes designed to advance the well-being of vulnerable workers.”
Ginsburg might consider migrant farmworkers, people who are employed at meatpacking plants and, in some cases, H-2A visa workers, among the “vulnerable,” said University of Denver law professor Nantiya Ruan.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2.2 million hourly wage workers earned the federal minimum wage or less in 2016. And the majority of the county’s 2.5 to 3 million agricultural workers earn an hourly wage, according to the National Center for Farmworker Health, 30 percent of which live in poverty.
Due to the cost of litigation and the relatively small damages associated with these cases, class-action lawsuits are ag-sector workers’ most feasible means for legal action, she said.
“Many low-wage workers have negative value claims that cannot be prosecuted unless they’re brought collectively,” said Ruan, whom Ginsburg cited in her dissent.
Ruan added that when a large number of employees are able to band together, their objective is often to change the policies and practices of their workplace and improves conditions for future workers. That’s not the case with individual arbitration, which only seeks to resolve the grievances of one individual.