by Ramona du Houx
On Friday, August 26, 2016, FairPoint strikers won a victory In Business Court when a previous decision was overturned.
“When we fight, we win. Employees should be entitled to benefits in situations like this where companies are demanding substantial concessions and use scabs to attempt to achieve their goals,” said Don Trementozzi, business manager for CWA, Local 1400, which represents most of FairPoint’s call center workers.
Maine’s Business Court handed a major victory to former strikers at FairPoint when it reversed a decision of the Unemployment Insurance Commission that denied unemployment benefits to the employees.
The Court’s decision rejected the Commission’s mandate that in order to obtain benefits, the employees had to prove that FairPoint had maintained substantially normal operations during the lengthy 4-month labor dispute in 2014-15.
“The Business Court’s decision is a major victory for our members just in time for Labor Day. The decision validates what we have been saying all along—that if FairPoint wants to operate with scabs, it should pay the price and have to pay unemployment benefits,” said Pete McLaughlin, the business manager for IBEW, Local 2327, which represents most of the FairPoint utility workers.
According to the Business Court’s decision, the Commission erred when it placed the burden of proof on employees, rather than FairPoint, to show that there had not been a stoppage of work. The Business Court’s decision was the first time that the Maine courts have addressed who has the burden of proof in labor disputes.
Second, the Business Court rejected the Commission’s determination that when Maine amended the unemployment statute in 1985, the Legislature had changed the standard for receipt of unemployment benefits during a strike. Prior to, and even after 1985, Maine courts, like most state courts around the nation, and the Commission, had held that workers were disqualified from receiving unemployment benefits only if the strike caused a substantial curtailment of the employer’s operations.
However, in its October 2015 decision, the Commission changed course and rejected the substantial curtailment standard; instead, the Commission held that the workers were ineligible for benefits because FairPoint had not maintained substantially normal operations during the strike, a more difficult standard to meet than the substantial curtailment standard.
The Business Court found that the Legislature had not intended to make any change in the substantial curtailment standard.
Finally, the Business Court held that the Commission needed to make a week by week determination of eligibility for benefits, raising the possibility that the FairPoint strikers might be entitled to benefits for some if not all weeks during the strike.
The Business Court’s decision means that the case will be returned to the Commission to reconsider its decision.
“FairPoint must now prove that there was a substantial curtailment of work for each and every week of the strike. Workers do not strike often, and usually only strike as a last resort in the face of extreme employer conduct. The FairPoint strikers will be able at least for the near future to keep the unemployment benefits they received pursuant to a decision of a Department of Labor Hearing Officer, who found (unlike the Commission) that no substantial curtailment had occurred. And, it should be easier in the future for employees involved in a labor dispute to receive unemployment benefits, particularly where, as here, the employer chooses to hire strike replacements,” said Jeffrey Neil Young of the Augusta law firm Johnson, Webbert & Young.