Two recent developments in California law involving the layoff of public employees have raised questions:
- First, the California Supreme Court decided that public employers are not required to negotiate with their employees’ unions about the decision to lay off employees.
- Second, a Superior Court judge in Los Angeles approved the settlement of a lawsuit between the American Civil Liberties Union and the Los Angeles Unified School District which approved the layoff of teachers other than by strict seniority.
The Supreme Court decision simply clarified the law; it did not announce a new legal standard. Employers have never been required to meet and confer on the question of whether employees could be laid off in a reduction of force due to economic concerns. That has always been viewed as a pure employer prerogative. However, it has equally been true that employers are required to meet and confer, on request, over issues relating to the impact of the layoffs. These issues can concern the timing, the identity of those to be laid off, issues relating to their pay and benefits, severance pay and the like. Indeed, the Public Employment Relations Board has held that these impact issues must be resolved before the layoffs can be implemented.
The LAUSD lawsuit is another matter and agencies should be cautious, and seek legal advice, before determining to layoff employees other than by strict seniority. It must be remembered that the LAUSD case was not a trial on the merits; it was a hearing on whether a previously negotiated settlement agreement was fair and equitable. The parties to the litigation included the ACLU, the School District, United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA), which represents the certificated employees of LAUSD. UTLA sought to overturn the settlement because it allowed layoffs other than by strict seniority. The settlement “walled off” 45 schools in low income and disadvantaged areas of the District. The sole issue before the court was whether the settlement was fair and equitable; the Judge concluded that it was.
Many labor agreements require the use of seniority in making decisions such as identifying those to be laid off in a reduction in force. In the case of general law cities, the Government Code (section 45100) requires that layoffs for financial reasons be according to seniority. There is no similar statutory provision applicable to counties or to special districts in general. Agencies need to consult their rules, labor agreements and legal counsel before laying off employees.
The LAUSD case involved very unique facts. The District needed to implement layoffs for cost cutting purposes and the ACLU argued that the use of strict seniority would negatively and detrimentally impact lower income and otherwise disadvantaged school children. The parties reached a settlement which protected the school sites in question. The Union intervened in an effort to protect the strict seniority principle and unsuccessfully attempted to overturn the settlement. An appeal by UTLA is likely.