By Tamia Sutherland
The House Committee on Education and Labor’s Subcommittee on Health, Employment, Labor, and Pensions held a Nov. 4 hearing on employment arbitration to introduce the “Restoring Justice for Workers Act.” The meeting and bill was presented by House Education and Labor Committee Chairman Bobby Scott, D., Va., and House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D., N.Y.
The text of the Restoring Justice for Workers Act is available here. The act would
- prohibit pre-dispute arbitration agreements that require arbitration of work disputes;
- prohibit retaliation against workers for refusing to arbitrate work disputes;
- provide protections to ensure that post-dispute arbitration agreements are truly voluntary and with the informed consent of workers;
- amend the National Labor Relations Act to prohibit agreements and practices that interfere with employees’ right to engage in concerted activity regarding work disputes, and
- reverse the U.S. Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision in Epic Systems Corp. v Lewis, available here. (Earlier this week, the Court agreed to hear a case that could clarify the extent of the seminal case’s application. For more, see Mark Kantor, “U.S. Supreme Court Adds an Arbitration Issue: Is Proof of Prejudice Needed to Defeat a Motion to Compel?” CPR Speaks (Nov. 15) (available at https://bit.ly/3FnfyGd).
The subcommittee meeting, “Closing the Courthouse Doors: The Injustice of Forced Arbitration Agreements,” began with an opening statement from committee Chairman Mark DeSaulnier, D., Calif. Senior Georgia Republican committee Rick W. Allan gave an opening statement, and then four witnesses provided testimony:
- Alexander Colvin, Dean of the School of Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell University;
- Glenda Perez, Former Implementation Set-Up Representative at Cigna;
- G. Roger King, Senior Labor and Employment Counsel at the Arlington, Va.-based HR Policy Association, a nonprofit membership group of “over 390 large” corporations’ chief human resource officers; and
- Kalpana Kotagal, a Partner in Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll’s Washington, D.C., office.
First, Chairman DeSaulnier began by introducing the topic of “forced arbitration” agreements and collective action waivers, explaining that for many employees, employment documents “include an arbitration clause, hidden in the fine print,” which requires workers to sign the document or forgo employment.
Next, he provided data to support the assertion that the use of these agreements is widespread. He explained that “in 1990, 2.1% of non-union employees had an arbitration clause in their employment contracts . . . [and in] 2018, nearly 60% of all nonunionized private-sector employees were covered by forced arbitration agreements.”
Chairman DeSaulnier provided other examples of what he described as unfair practices and, finally, introduced the Restoring Justice for Workers Act as a solution.
Rep. Allan countered in his opening statement that the act is another instance of heavy-handed government reach that will be burdensome to employers and unfairly target job creators. Moreover, he asserted that the act would delay justice and continue to clog an already overrun court system.
Prof. Colvin, a longtime critic of mandatory arbitration processes, was the first witness to provide testimony. He provided statistics from his studies, cited at his link above, to show the increase use of arbitration, and how employees do worse in arbitration as opposed to the court. He also discussed how employees who use the arbitration process for the first time are at a structural disadvantage to companies who repeatedly use the process.
Next, Glenda Perez provided a personal account of her struggles with the arbitration process without a lawyer. Perez reported that she and her husband worked for Bloomfield, Conn.-based insurer Cigna from October 2013 to July 2017. In April 2017, Cigna put her on a performance correction plan for work “errors” after meeting with her team on pharmacy benefits.
Her husband, a Cigna analyst, found evidence of errors by white women but none by his wife, according to Perez’s witness statement. She filed a discrimination complaint with Cigna’ human resources department. Typically, a full investigation takes 60 days, she reported, but in her statement, Perez said her investigation took one day, with human resources backing her manager’s claim. Two months later, she was fired.
Perez wanted to file a claim for discrimination and retaliation, but could not find an attorney to represent her in mandatory arbitration. She said she was forced to drive to a law library to do research while also taking care of her three children and looking for a new job. She claimed it took several months to choose an arbitrator.
Moreover, Perez reported, the arbitrator selected may have had a conflict of interest that was not disclosed. Perez’s testimony focused on arbitrator’s lack of impartiality. She reported that there are photos online of the arbitrator, and Cigna’s attorney, at the arbitrator’s 50th birthday party, which she filed with her committee testimony. Additionally, she testified, the arbitrator formerly worked for the firm representing Cigna and had Cigna’s counsel as a reference on his CV.
The arbitrator denied Perez’s request for materials to prove her case as Cigna claimed it would cost more than $1 million to retrieve “even though,” she said, “I was only requesting my employee personal profile.” Cigna moved for summary judgment, and then the arbitrator ruled in favor of Cigna, and canceled a hearing that had been scheduled. When Perez filed a motion to vacate the decision in court, she said Cigna fired her husband.
HR Policy Association attorney Roger King said that two of the legislation’s primary objectives are big mistakes and are a substantial overreach of congressional action. He explained that completely eliminating pre-dispute arbitration was a mistake, and a total prohibition on class-action waivers would be burdensome. Also, in response to Glenda Perez’s testimony, he asserted that generally, arbitrators are ethical.
Finally, Kalpana Kotagal testified that the justification for forced arbitration is predicated on myths because (1) there is no equal bargaining power in most forced arbitrations, (2) it burdens those who are already marginalized, (3) it is not speedy, and (4) it deters workers from bringing claims.
The meeting concluded with a Q&A from other committee members.
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The author, a second-year law student at the Howard University School of Law in Washington, D.C., is a CPR 2021 Fall Intern.