California Labor Code Section 229 - Interpretation

Labor Code section 229 provides: "Actions to enforce the provisions of this article for the collection of due and unpaid wages claimed by an individual may be maintained without regard to the existence of any private agreement to arbitrate. This section shall not apply to claims involving any dispute concerning the interpretation or application of any collective bargaining agreement containing such an arbitration agreement." In Plumbing, Heating etc. Council v. Howard (1975) 53 Cal.App.3d 828, an employee claimed that he was entitled to a foreman's rate of pay for a particular job based on schedules in a union agreement. the employers disagreed, arguing that the agreement's language was ambiguous on the point and that an entirely different union agreement governed the employee's work status for the job in any event. (Id. at pp. 831-832.) Both agreements contained grievance and arbitration procedures but the employee filed a claim with the Labor Commissioner instead. the Labor Commissioner determined which agreement applied and concluded that under that agreement the employee was entitled to a foreman's rate of pay. The employers filed suit to enjoin the Labor Commissioner and the employee from enforcing or from attempting to enforce the employee's wage claim outside the unions' collective bargaining procedures for addressing such claims. (Id. at p. 832.) In interpreting the second sentence of Labor Code section 229 the Howard court concluded that the "policy favoring collective bargaining appears to be embodied in the second sentence of Labor Code section 229. to allow the Labor Commissioner to pursue enforcement of a wage claim in the employee's stead, despite the existence of a collective bargaining agreement with an arbitration clause, would clearly thwart this policy. for these reasons, it is concluded that the Legislature in enacting section 229 sought to encourage the resolution of labor disputes covered by collective bargaining agreements via arbitration-grievance procedures contained therein, and therefore intended to prohibit the Labor Commissioner from assuming jurisdiction to enforce claims for wages arising under collective bargaining agreements." (Howard, supra, 53 Cal.App.3d at pp. 834-835.) Because the circumstances in Howard involved disputes about which collective bargaining agreement applied to the employee's claim, as well as the proper interpretation of admittedly ambiguous provisions in the agreements, the court held that the second sentence of Labor Code section 229 required resolution of the employee's claims through the agreements' grievance and arbitration procedures. Accordingly, the court found the Labor Commissioner's orders invalid and enjoined their enforcement. (53 Cal.App.3d at p. 835.)