Q. We have a problem with the union steward in our plant. He seems to think that his primary responsibility is working for the union, and that his job is secondary. He spends an inordinate amount of time filing and working on grievances. Are we required to pay an employee who is the union steward for time spent on union activities?
A. Probably, but not necessarily. First, there is a wage-and-hour issue under the Fair Labor Standards Act—the minimum wage law. Normally, an employer is required to pay for all hours worked, and that includes short breaks and other incidental time during the workday when an employee is not actually performing services for an employer. Time spent adjusting grievances would fall into this category, and in fact there is a federal wage-and-hour regulation recognizing that—29 CFR 785.43.
However, the regulation permits agreement between the company and the union to exclude time processing grievances as working time. As a practical matter, however, unions expect employees to be paid for the time spent processing grievances, and you probably would encounter substantial resistance to making such time unpaid.
Many collective bargaining agreements grant stewards reasonable amounts of time during regular working time to process grievances or work on union business.
The employer can address the reasonableness issue by implementing a requirement that the steward secure supervisor approval before performing union business or by designating specific times for union business.
The employer can direct the steward not to perform union business during specific times or to stop working on a grievance at a certain time because it interferes with production operations.
Employers with sophisticated time card systems may require employees performing union business to swipe in and out for such activity just as they would for production activities—this permits better monitoring of the problem.
Be sure to discuss any specific steps you take to resolve this problem with your labor attorney, as there is a fine line between rights (maintaining efficient operation in the plant) and the duty to bargain over changes in the workplace.
Stewards who go home or to the union hall to work on grievances after hours are normally not paid—this is not the same as an employee who is asked to work on a company project after the normal workday.
Employers should be careful when scheduling grievance meetings with the union. When a meeting goes past the normal shift-ending time, unions frequently argue that the steward is still on the clock and should be paid.
Note: Unions tend to view stewards’ activities such as processing grievances and meeting with the employer as benefits to the employer—they supposedly help maintain harmony in the workplace.
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