Employee Contract Expiration – Operating under the Status Quo

The end of the school year may mark the expiration of some collective bargaining agreements (CBA) or the commencement of formal negotiations for others.  If negotiations fail to result in a new CBA prior to the current contract’s expiration, the District has a duty to maintain the status quo under the expired CBA while negotiations continue.  In Fairview School District v. UCBR, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court held that “maintenance of the status quo is merely another way of stating that the parties must continue the existing relationship in effect at the expiration of the old contract.”  If the status quo is upset by the District, any resulting work stoppage is considered a lock-out rather than a strike, thus entitling the employees to receive unemployment compensation.  On many occasions, the Union will claim that the status quo has been violated and that a lock-out has occurred over any and all minor variations in District operations.  While the District cannot be held hostage and the Unions cannot handcuff the District and its Administration in its operations, any potential variations in past operations must be evaluated in the context of whether it would be considered a violation of the status quo by the courts. 

This article is not intended to provide legal guidance on specific situations which may be facing your School District.  Rather, the following are only a representative sample of how courts have decided the issue of whether the status quo has been altered. 

  • A change in health insurance policy or provider, regardless of whether the coverage was equivalent, was a violation of the status quo.
  • A school district’s refusal to “step-up” teachers’ salaries, even though the expired labor agreement had provided for such changes, did not constitute a disruption of the status quo.  During the interim period between the contract’s expiration and the negotiation of a new one, the status quo should be maintained as if the existing conditions were frozen rather than to give effect to a built-in wage escalator such as “step movement.” 
  • A school district’s unilateral action in raising pay and benefits after the contract’s expiration was a disruption of the status quo. 
  • An extension of the summer vacation break by two weeks during negotiation of an expired teachers contract was considered a violation of the status quo when the teachers expressed a willingness to continue to work under the status quo. 

As the above examples indicate, even a change made by the employer which is beneficial to the union members may be considered a disruption of the status quo.  Also, even the smallest of change may be considered a disruption of the status quo.  There is no de minimus rule of deviation from the terms of a CBA.  However, the status quo is a fluid rather than a firm concept, and an employer can successfully convert a lock-out to a strike.  The Commonwealth Court recognized that the cause of a work stoppage could change in mid-stream by the actions of the disputing parties.  The party who disturbs the status quo bears the responsibility for reestablishing the status quo.  When an employer has the ability to restore the pre-existing terms and conditions of employment, the status quo will be restored when the employer takes the necessary action to restore the status quo. 

The above examples demonstrate the critical importance of communication and coordination between the Administration, the Board, and your Solicitor to protect your District from the risk of costly unemployment compensation claims.  Maiello, Brungo & Maiello, LLP has negotiated numerous CBAs and has counseled many School Districts in maintaining the status quo.