Supreme Court Expands Definition of Supervisor Under National Labor Relations Act


More of your employees may be supervisors than you might think and they may be supervisors in ways which might surprise you. Reconsidering whether some of your employees are supervisors could pay significant dividends for you as an employer. In a wave of recent court and agency rulings, the number of employees being counted as "supervisors" under the National Labor Relations Act has expanded dramatically.

Traditional View of Who is a Supervisor

Traditionally, most employers concluded that supervisors must have the authority to hire, fire, discipline and otherwise directly affect the wages or working conditions of fellow employees. But it is now clear that individuals who "responsibly direct" others may also be supervisors under the Act - even if they do not also have the authority to hire, fire or discipline.

The battle over the supervisory status of individuals who direct but do not hire or fire lower level employees has been waged on many fronts. A number of court and agency decisions have involved registered nurses in a nursing home setting. Similar issues have been litigated with respect to television producers, barge pilots, and other occupations.

Unions and employers alike are waging these battles to achieve their own goals. In some cases, a union seeks to include arguable supervisory employees in a representation election and the employer objects on the ground that the employees are supervisors. In other settings, employers that historically included these individuals in a bargaining unit are filing unit clarification petitions seeking to take them out of the unit. In many of these cases, courts around the country have rejected the National Labor Relations Board's traditional analysis that such individuals are not supervisors.

The U.S. Supreme Court Weighs In ...

On the national level, the United States Supreme Court recently took up this topic in resolving a case regarding the status of registered nurses at a residential care facility. NLRB vs. Kentucky River Community Care (decided 5/29/01). The nurses in Kentucky River directed the work of nursing assistants but did not hire, fire, discipline, evaluate, or otherwise play a role in the terms and conditions of the nursing assistants' employment. The NLRB had concluded that these nurses did not exercise sufficient independent judgment to qualify as supervisors, since they simply relied on their "ordinary professional or technical judgment" in directing lower level employees.

The Supreme Court categorically rejected the Board's analysis, concluding instead that these nurses clearly met the Act's definition of a supervisory employee because they did "responsibly direct" the work of lower level employees #151; using independent judgment and exercising their authority in the interest of the employer while doing so. As the Court noted: "What supervisory judgment worth exercising . . . does not rest on 'professional or technical skill or experience'?"

... And the Board's Regional Offices Get the Message

In a matter involving employees of the Wisconsin Electric Power Company, Region 30 of the National Labor Relations Board in Milwaukee was persuaded to reject an election petition brought by a union seeking to represent individuals who are supervisors under the Supreme Court's Kentucky River Community Care analysis. These individuals, who held the title of "Distribution Control Supervisors," work for an electric utility.

These employees' primary duty is to design and direct "switching activities" on the utility's electrical distribution system so that portions of the system can be de-energized for repair work. Although these supervisors have no authority to hire, fire, evaluate, or discipline field crews, the utility relies upon their professional and technical experience to safely design and implement switching orders. Furthermore, the utility's field crews must follow these supervisors' directions to safely perform their work.

Region 30 of the Board concluded that Kentucky River Community Care supplied the proper analysis to determine whether the Distribution Control Supervisors were, as the utility contended, supervisors. In relying on the Supreme Court's decision, the Regional office rejected prior Board decisions stating that distribution control supervisors are not supervisors under the Act. Instead, the Region concluded that prior Board law was no longer valid in light of the Supreme Court's 2001 decision. NLRB Case No. 30-RC-6489 (decided October 11, 2002).

Benefits for Employers

In the wake of Kentucky River Community Care, employers stand to reap enormous benefits from taking a fresh look at the status of lead workers, administrators, and other employees who - even though they may currently be included in collective bargaining units - might actually be supervisors under the Act. Whatever their actual title, employees who are responsible for directing lower level employees and who utilize independent judgment in doing so may well be supervisory employees - even if they have no direct reports and do not participate in hiring and firing decisions.

Wrap-up

Clarifying the status of who is a supervisor may not only affect the size and continued viability of a current bargaining unit. It may also provide management with greater freedom and flexibility as it interacts with such supervisors, who should be treated as members of the management team with whom employers are entitled to have a direct relationship rather than as rank-and-file employees entitled to union representation at every turn.