A more than two-year fight over dress code changes for Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services workers has ended — for now — with employees able once again to wear jeans not just on Fridays.
A Lincoln judge this week upheld an arbitration award that found HHS had violated its labor contract with union workers by unilaterally changing the dress code in 2019, banning jeans Monday through Thursday.
But Lancaster County District Judge Robert Otte was clear. His decision didn’t mean HHS couldn’t ban jeans in the future.
In December 2019, the department changed its dress code, requiring all employees to wear business casual clothing Monday through Thursday. Jeans, T-shirts and sweatshirts no longer were allowed.
Soon after, Christine Slaymaker and more than 200 other members of the Nebraska Association of Public Employees (NAPE), Local No. 61, the union representing government workers in the state, filed a grievance challenging the revisions.
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They alleged DHHS violated their contract by not giving union members proper notice, failing to negotiate the changes and implementing the new dress code in an “unreasonable manner.”
They said some employees who performed the same work at the same location and on the same shift were allowed to wear jeans, while others were not.
The grievance went to an arbitrator, Jim Nash, who ruled in favor of the workers and directed HHS to reactivate its previous dress code, allowing jeans.
In November 2020, HHS filed a petition asking a judge to vacate the award on the grounds that Nash had exceeded his powers.
And NAPE argued the award should be confirmed because he made his decision based directly on the terms of the labor contract.
In an order Wednesday, Otte said Nash hadn’t concluded that HHS’ revised dress code was “arbitrary, capricious, unreasonable and unfair.” He concluded that the manner in which it was implemented was.
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Nash said HHS was imposing different and more onerous standards on similarly situated employees.
Otte found Nash’s conclusion a permissible interpretation of a contract requirement that the department establish or amend work rules “in a reasonable manner,” and that he hadn’t exceeded his authority.
The judge said the department retains the right to establish any work rule, including dress code standards, even if the union and its members feel it is unreasonable or unfair.
The arbitration decision merely precludes the new dress code relative to jeans from being implemented as sought by HHS, Otte said.
“Accordingly, if a new dress code prohibits jeans, flip flops or shorts, the prohibition must be implemented reasonably,” he wrote.
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On its website, NAPE called it a “major victory for union members” and told employees they could revert to following the 2017 dress code immediately.
“Should DHHS choose to change its dress code in the future requiring a more stringent dress requirement, our contract in Article 25.6 now requires that agencies negotiate with NAPE/AFSCME for a clothing stipend up to $250,” executive director Justin Hubly said.
HHS could still appeal the decision.
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