Compliance

Legislative lowdown: SCOTUS edition

Decisions on affirmative action and religious accommodations could affect the way HR pros do their work.
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4 min read

As the Supreme Court wrapped up its 2023 term, the justices delivered several decisions that could affect how HR pros do their work.

Here’s a look at four of those key decisions, and what they might mean for HR.

Affirmative action. The high court voted 6-3 to end race-conscious admissions in higher education on June 29, ruling that affirmative action programs at the University of North Carolina and Harvard University were unconstitutional.

While the decision won’t directly affect employers, it could have implications for their diversity efforts. Federal law bars employment discrimination based on race, but some companies have started setting diversity goals and publishing data on their progress.

“Employers have always been walking this tightrope of having targets and goals and not quotas,” Ian Carleton Schaefer, a partner in the labor and employment practice at Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton, told the Wall Street Journal. “This decision just snapped the tightrope.”

Religious accommodations. In a unanimous decision on the same day, the Supreme Court reinterpreted the “de minimis” standard for religious exemptions.

The de minimis standard, which said that religious accommodations may constitute an undue hardship for employers if they pose a “more than de minimis” cost, prompted scrutiny for being too low, Jonathan Segal, an employment attorney with Duane Morris, told HR Brew in early June.

After hearing arguments in a case brought by Gerald Groff, a former postal worker who sued the USPS for requiring him to work on Sundays when he observes the Sabbath, the Supreme Court clarified the standard required under Title VII, a provision of the Civil Rights Act banning employment discrimination based on protected characteristics.

Rather than a de minimis cost, an employer must show that “the burden of granting an accommodation would result in substantial increased costs in relation to the conduct of its particular business” in such cases, Justice Samuel Alito wrote in the opinion.

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Strike liability. In an 8-1 decision on June 1, the court ruled that concrete company Glacier Northwest could sue the International Brotherhood of Teamsters in state court over concrete that spoiled while workers were on strike.

The case is expected to make it easier for employers to sue unions over damages incurred during strikes, Dan Altchek, an attorney at law firm Saul Ewing, told SHRM.

“The ruling means that employers stand a better chance of succeeding in their lawsuits against unions for damages resulting from property damage,” he said. “That, in turn, could cause unions to think twice about striking if there is a concern that the strike could cause property damage and could also be found to be unprotected under federal labor law.”

Overtime pay. The Supreme Court ruled on February 22 that a former Helix Energy Solutions employee who made more than $200,000 a year is owed overtime pay under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).

Under the FLSA, employers may be exempt from paying overtime to workers who earn at least $107,432 a year “on a salary or fee basis.” The justices, in a 6-3 decision, ruled the employee wasn’t exempt from overtime pay because he wasn’t salaried but instead paid on a daily basis.

The decision is likely to have an impact on employers in the energy industry, Bloomberg Law reported, as they tend to pay employees by the day.

Patrick Dalin, an attorney with Fisher Phillips, told SHRM the case shows that employers “can be subject to substantial back pay and liquidated damages liability” if their compensation arrangements don’t comply with FLSA requirements.

Quick-to-read HR news & insights

From recruiting and retention to company culture and the latest in HR tech, HR Brew delivers up-to-date industry news and tips to help HR pros stay nimble in today’s fast-changing business environment.