The New Jersey Supreme Court recently held that 97 nurses who went on strike against their employer, Lourdes Medical Center of Burlington County, were entitled to collect unemployment benefits for the pay they lost during the strike. The Hospital argued that it should not have to subsidize striking employees by contributing to their unemployment benefits. However, the unemployment benefit statute, N.J.S.A. 43:21-5(d), provides that striking workers are entitled to collect benefits during a strike except when the strike causes a “stoppage of work.” Here, the Hospital was able to find replacement nurses during the strike, maintain its patient and employee census, and continue business substantially as normal.
The Court reviewed the Legislature’s purpose in originally enacting the unemployment benefits law. The law was passed in in the midst of the Great Depression, when unions and management were “locked in battle over issues ranging from employee demands for sustainable wages to improved working conditions,” said Justice Barry Albin, in the 6-1 majority decision in Lourdes Medical Center of Burlington County v. Board of Review, A-70/71-07 (Jan. 27, 2009). Justice Albin stated that the Legislature intended the unemployment benefits law to be a “lifeline” for “ordinary men and women, who otherwise could not afford to leave work to protest for increased wages or decent working conditions,” and to permit “labor to compete on a more equal playing field with management.” Therefore, the nurses were within their rights to seek and collect unemployment benefits from the Hospital, despite the fact that they went on strike.
Kudos to the New Jersey Supreme Court for reaffirming and upholding the intent of unemployment benefits law. Nowadays, full access to unemployment benefits is more important than ever to New Jersey employees.