Seyfarth Synopsis: Employers should not presume that they are permitted to stop paying for employees’ medical benefits once they go out on strike. In a 2-1 decision, the NLRB recently held that — at least in some circumstances — medical benefits may be “accrued” simply by virtue of being employed. If so, then an employer may not stop those benefits during strike.

Nearly 70 years ago, the NLRB confirmed that an employer has no obligation to finance a strike against itself by paying wages to employees during a strike. See General Elec., 80 NLRB 510 (1948). No one ever said that strikes are supposed to be painless for strikers or that they entitled to be paid not to work. Decades after the General Electric decision, it has become very common for employers to provide their employees with medical insurance, in addition to wages, as a form of compensation. Many (perhaps most) employers assume that the old axiom extends to this form of compensation, as well: they believe they can never be required to continue paying for their employees’ medical insurance during a strike. Alas, in Hawaiian Telcom, Inc., 365 NLRB No. 36 (Feb. 23, 2017), the NLRB held otherwise. Over an impassioned dissent by Acting NLRB Chairman Phil Miscimarra, the two Democrat Members of the Board concluded that this is actually a question of contract interpretation. Reviewing the collective bargaining agreement that had expired prior to the strike, the NLRB observed that the contract provided medical insurance for all employees covered by the agreement — with no exceptions, save for termination of employment. Strikers, of course, have not terminated their employment, so the NLRB decided that medical benefits could not be stopped during the strike, even though the collective bargaining agreement had expired.

What does this mean for employers? At the very least, it means that they should be very familiar with the precise terms of the collective bargaining agreement and other documents (benefit plan documents, SPDs, etc.) that govern their medical benefits for organized employees. They should consider how these documents may be interpreted and whether they may be in need of revision. Of course, this is a complex area of overlapping labor relations and employee benefits law, and an employer may not lawfully be able to make the changes it desires, for various reasons. Nevertheless, it is better to understand the potential obstacles and to make a considered decisions about dealing with them well before a work stoppage looms on the horizon, rather than scrambling to deal with the issue during a strike or (worse) finding out five years after cutting off benefits during a strike that the decision to do so was unlawful, as the employer did in Hawaiian Telcom.