Second Circuit Upholds Employer's Refusal to Reinstate Home Care Workers Who Struck After Stating They Would Report to Work

March 7, 2013

By David E. Prager

Citing “unprotected, indefensible conduct” that “created a reasonably foreseeable danger” to patients, the Second Circuit, in NLRB v. Special Touch Home Care Services, Inc., stung the National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB”) by upholding a home care employer’s refusal to reinstate strikers who “misled the employer” by falsely advising that they intended to report to work.

In 2003, when 1199 SEIU announced a three-day strike -- after giving 10 days advance notice required for health care institutions -- the employer lawfully polled its home health aides as to whether they intended to report to work as usual at the homes of patients they were assigned to assist.  While the employees were under no obligation to answer, most of them did respond, and the employer made arrangements to cover those who said they would not report to work, in order to meet the employer’s duty to its patients.

However, 48 home health aides who advised the employer that they intended to report to work nevertheless did not do so.  The employer argued that this conduct was “unprotected,” because, by misleading the employer, the aides failed to take “reasonable precautions” to avoid a risk of injury to the homebound (typically frail and elderly) patients whom the aides were assigned to assist.  Because the employer had no notice that these 48 employees would not report to work -- and none of them called in to say so -- the employer had to struggle to find coverage belatedly, and could not cover all of the patients, many of whom suffer from conditions like Alzheimer’s, strokes, Parkinson’s disease, and diminished mobility.

Seventy-five strikers who told the employer they would be out, or who called in prior to their shift, were reinstated to their positions when the three-day strike ended.  However, the 48 who misrepresented that they would report to work were not immediately reinstated (the employer instead placed them on a list for future openings).

The NLRB held that both groups of strikers were protected, reasoning that the 10-day advance-notice for strikes at health care entities was the only pre-strike notice required.  However, the Second Circuit rejected the NLRB’s view, holding that an otherwise lawful striker becomes unprotected if he “cease[s] work without taking reasonable precautions” to shield employers (or here, patients) from “foreseeable imminent danger due to sudden cessation of work.”  This conduct was regarded as unprotected under a line of industrial cases where strikers left their workstations in conditions that were potentially perilous to the public or the employer.  Here, by misleading the employer as to their intention to report to work, the 48 home health aides left the employer unable to protect seriously ill patients, thereby placing them in “imminent danger,” and rendering their strike activity “unprotected.”