In Staffing Network Holdings, LLC v. NLRB, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago recently upheld the National Labor Relations Board’s decision that an employer unlawfully fired an employee who briefly refused to work in response to the perceived unfair treatment of a fellow employee.
The employer in this case, Staffing Network, provides temporary and long-term workers to other employers. In this case, Staffing Network provided workers to a company called ReaderLink. Among the Staffing Network workers provided to ReaderLink was a woman named Griselda Barrera. A Staffing Network supervisor sent one of Ms. Barrera’s co-workers home for substandard performance. In response, Ms. Barrera and several coworkers immediately spoke up in support of their banished colleague and briefly stopped working. A Staffing Network supervisor first threatened Ms. Barrera and her coworkers stating that they would be discharged for their conduct in support of their colleague and then sent Ms. Barrera home and also told her not to come back to work the next day. Ms. Barrera believed that she had been fired and filed an unemployment compensation claim and an unfair labor practice charge with the NLRB.
An NLRB administrative law judge ruled for Ms. Barrera and the NLRB affirmed the ALJ’s ruling that Staffing Network violated the National Labor Relations Act when it threatened employees that they would be fired for supporting their colleague and when it fired Ms. Barrera because of her actions in support of her colleague. The NLRB also rejected Staffing Network’s claim that Ms. Barrera’s discharge was justified by her insubordinate behavior.
On review, the Seventh Circuit had little trouble affirming the NLRB’s decision. To the court, the issues were fairly straightforward: Ms. Barrera and her colleagues were engaged in protected, concerted activity when they expressed their opposition to the employer’s treatment of their colleague and during which they briefly stopped work. The employer’s threats to discharge and actual discharge of Ms. Barrera interfered with the employees’ rights to engage in protected, concerted activity in violation of Section 8(a)(1) of the Act.
This case provides a good example of court deference to NLRB findings. The employer argued strenuously that it did not fire Ms. Barrera and offered a variety of facts in support of its theory. The court noted, however, that the ALJ: (1) largely discredited the employer’s evidence; (2) determined that the employer’s own evidence amounted to an admission that Ms. Barrrera had in fact been fired; and (3) credited Ms. Barrera’s testimony. As a result, the court upheld the NLRB’s decision and enforced its order.
The court’s decision demonstrates the difficulty employers face when attempting to challenge the NLRB’s factual findings. This case is also a reminder that a brief work stoppage implicates employee rights under federal labor law and that, when presented with a similar situation, employers should consider all the potential legal consequences before taking action.