Sheila Hobson had been working for Murphy Oil as a gas station attendant in Calera, Alabama, for two years when she says it “just hit” her that she was being underpaid.
Hobson said she was required, every day before and after work, to drive by competitor gas stations within 30 miles and write down the price of their gas. The fuel surveys, as she called them, took between 15 and 45 minutes each, but the time wasn’t recorded by Murphy Oil.
“I’m working off the clock, they say nothing about it, they do not compensate you, and they done nothing about it,” said Hobson. When she and three co-workers together sued the company for lost wages, they were told they had signed away that right when they started their jobs. Hobson’s job contract included a provision that any lawsuit brought over her employment needed to go through arbitration, and individually.
“We wanted to file together to be stronger, to be a stronger word heard, and we was told we were not able to do that,” Hobson said.
Murphy Oil, which operates retail gas stations in 26 states, is one of three employers that have asked the Supreme Court to validate the joint and class-action waivers they’ve written into employment contracts. The other two, medical software company Epic Systems and the professional services firm Ernst & Young, are facing similar wage-and-hour claims from groups of employees.
In all three disputes, consolidated under the name Epic Systems Corp. v. Lewis, workers are fighting to keep their right to sue collectively.
This moment has been a long time coming. Over the past few decades, a series of Supreme Court decisions has gradually expanded employers’ ability to set the terms for the litigation of workplace disputes. In 2001, the Supreme Court ruled that employers can require employees to bring their claims through arbitration. In 2011, the justices upheld a class-action waiver in AT&T’s standard-form consumer contract, but a dispute remained over whether the same applied to employment contracts.
Along the way, the justices have been fiercely split on both the issues of mandatory arbitration and class-action waivers, and Epic Systems is no different. At oral arguments on October 2, the Court appeared divided once more, this time over the question of whether companies can require workers to arbitrate their claims on an individual basis.
Justices Kagan, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Ginsburg all came to the defense of workers’ right to sue collectively, while Justice Alito and Chief Justice Roberts appeared more sympathetic to the employer’s position. Justice Gorsuch, the newcomer to the Court, remained notably silent, though his rulings from the lower court suggest he may favor the employers. Justice Thomas, who almost never speaks during arguments, has favored the employer position in the past.