Why Workers Should Care About Supreme Court Justice Scalia’s Death

By Kara Miller

Justice Scalia’s death leaves an open seat on the Supreme Court. In what seemed like only minutes after his death was announced, politicians were preparing for battle over who and when a successor should be appointed. This response is easy to understand given the power Supreme Court justices can have. For example, conservative justices of an earlier generation held that minimum wage laws applied to working men, but not to working women. Years later, after the addition of some new and more liberal justices, the exact opposite was held, paving the way for laws designed to protect women in the workforce.

While Supreme Court decisions affecting “flashier” topics such as gay marriage, Obamacare, and the death penalty have gotten the most attention recently, their impact on everyday workers should not be overlooked. 

Just this term, the Supreme Court will be deciding three cases that affect class actions, where a few workers sue on behalf of many workers who have suffered similar harms. Class actions are critical to protecting workers’ rights, especially in cases where workers have relatively small individual damages.

In one of these cases, Tyson Foods, Inc. v. Bouaphakeo, the Supreme Court will decide whether it was permissible for approximately 700 workers to be joined into a single class to recover $5.8 million dollars in unpaid wages for time they spent putting on and taking off required clothing at a processing plant. The Supreme Court’s decision could have a significant impact on how similar workers must be to sue as a group, rather than sue individually.

Whoever eventually fills the vacant seat left by Justice Scalia will have a hand in shaping the rights of everyday workers for decades. We will continue to post new developments as they occur.

Photo by Claire Anderson.

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