The New Jersey Supreme Court on Nov. 29 ruled that boards of education cannot unilaterally reduce employees’ hours in times of economic crisis

The state Supreme Court announced its decision in the highly anticipated case of In the Matter of Robbinsville Township Board of Education v. Washington Township Education Association. In its decision, the court unanimously affirmed the proposition that hours of work are a negotiable topic which cannot unilaterally be reduced by boards of education, even in times of budgetary concerns and economic crisis.

This case arose from a dispute between the Robbinsville board and its teachers’ union based upon competing interpretations of the scope and impact of the Supreme Court’s 2015 decision in Borough of Keyport v. International Union of Operating Engineers decision.

In Keyport, the court held, that although work days and compensation are terms and conditions of employment, requiring negotiations, the public employer was permitted to unilaterally alter employees’ rates of pay and work days “in accordance with a duly authorized temporary layoff plan” during a time of acute economic crisis. Relying upon the court’s Keyport decision, the Appellate Division affirmed the Public Employment Relations Commission’s (PERC’s) decision and found the Robbinsville board did not violate the law by unilaterally reducing the work year of teachers from 188 days to 185 days and reducing pay to match.

In reversing the Appellate Division, the court emphasized the Keyport decision arose from three civil service jurisdictions which were permitted by regulation to impose temporary layoffs or furloughs. Moreover, the court held there was a misunderstanding about the scope of its Keyport decision. Specifically, the court held “Keyport does not stand for the proposition that anytime a municipal public employer can claim an economic crisis, managerial prerogative allows the public employer to throw a collectively negotiated agreement out the window. To the contrary, Keyport painstakingly emphasized the significance of an agency of state government enacting a temporary emergency regulation to provide local governmental managers with enhanced prerogatives in handling the extraordinary fiscal times faced in the late 2000s.”

To further support its reversal of the Appellate Division, the court in Robbinsville reasoned that “[h]ad the temporary regulation not provided that extra managerial authority, the fact patterns in the three consolidated cases in Keyport would have foundered on the third-prong analysis. Allowing a claimed need for management prerogative to prevail in tight budgetary times in order for municipal governmental policy to be properly determined would eviscerate the durability of collective negotiated agreements.”

In short, the state Supreme Court’s recent Robbinsville decision makes it clear that neither a board of education, nor any public employer, can unilaterally reduce the hours of work, even temporarily, for employees absent negotiations. While a board can institute a reduction in force plan, that plan cannot result in a temporary reduction of hours or reduced work schedule without agreement from the majority representative.

“For local boards of education, this decision is a step backwards in terms of the flexibility established by previous case law to allow school boards to preserve the education program in times of financial emergencies,” said Dr. Lawrence S. Feinsod, NJSBA executive director.

The state Supreme Court’s decision can be found online.