High court sides with Nebraska HHS workers over dress code

Jan 19, 2023, 9:04 PM | Updated: Jan 20, 2023, 11:10 am

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — The Nebraska Supreme Court upheld on Friday a lower court judge’s ruling that sided with state employees who fought back against a government dress code banning blue jeans.

In late 2019, the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services advised its employees of a new dress code barring employees from wearing blue jeans, T-shirts and other casual wear except on Fridays.

In turn, more than 200 union-covered employees filed a grievance saying the department violated the union contract by unilaterally deciding to change the dress code. At the time the department issued the new dress code, the employee contract language required the agency to negotiate with the union if it required a more stringent dress code and to offer a clothing stipend of up to $250, according to Nebraska Association of Public Employees Executive Director Justin Hubly.

The employees also said the new dress code was arbitrarily enforced, with some employees who performed the same work at the same location and on the same shift being allowed to wear jeans, while others were not.

Within weeks of the new dress code, employees won their grievance in binding arbitration, and the agency sued to try to overturn the arbitrator’s decision. Lancaster County District Judge Robert Otte upheld the arbitration, saying that department can set a dress code but that it must be “implemented reasonably.”

The Nebraska Supreme Court said in its opinion Friday that the arbitrator was “well within his powers” in finding that the agency had violated the labor contract with its dress code change.

Union President Melissa Haynes lauded the high court’s ruling in a written statement, saying the case was about basic contract enforcement.

“We always want to work collaboratively with DHHS management to solve disputes, but we will never hesitate to defend our rights,” Hynes said.

Nebraska Health and Human Services spokesperson Jeff Powell said the agency would not comment on the ruling or whether it would now seek to negotiate a new dress code with employees.

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