Court of Civil Appeals sides with support employees in quest for unpaid holiday pay
By Jeff Harrison
Mid-Del Public Schools are asking the Oklahoma State Supreme Court to review a lower court’s ruling that would require the district to provide holiday pay to support employees.
An Oklahoma County District Court judge ruled in August that the Mid-Del Public Schools violated a contract with the Mid-Del Support Employees Association, by not providing holiday pay for support employees represented by the labor union. The ruling was upheld by the Court of Civil Appeals in January.
The school district argued that the appellate court misinterpreted the intent and language of the contract concerning holiday pay for support employees.
The section of the contract reads:
“Paid Holidays for all employees in the bargain unit excluding, part-time Hourly employees, Temporary employees, Child Nutrition employees and Bus Drivers shall be: Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day and New Year’s Day, if such holiday falls within the individual employee’s contract year.”
The school district argues the appellate court ruling misinterpreted the term “contract year” to mean the entire time period spanned by the employee’s work days, rather than the number of days that an employee is contracted to work. They argue the court created ambiguity in the contract and should have ruled in favor of the school district.
“Oklahoma law requires that when an ambiguity is found to exist in the contract between a public body and private party, the private party is presumed to have caused the uncertainty,” the school district wrote in its petition for certiorari.
Mid-Del Support Employees Association represents about 600 support staff employed by the school district. These include; paraprofessionals, clerical staff, interpreters, child nutrition workers, bus drivers, teacher assistants, media assistants, secretaries, custodians and maintenance staff.
The support employees filed the lawsuit in October 2014.
The lawsuit argues the school district breached contract by not paying support employees holiday pay as negotiated in the labor agreement. The support employees are also seeking past unpaid holiday wages for a period extending back five years from the date of the filing.
In the petition, the school district scrutinized the language of the contract stating, “if such holiday falls within the individual employee’s contract” means that support employees are entitled to holiday pay only if the holiday falls on one of the 180, 200 or 230 days the support employee is contractually obligated to work.
On Aug. 3, 2017, the district court granted summary judgement in favor of the support employees. The court determined Mid-Del Public Schools has failed to pay support employees holiday pay as required by the contract.
The school district promptly appealed the district court ruling.
In a petition filed Aug. 31, 2017, the school district argued the lower court ruling changes the terms of the contract. Support employees working under a 180-day contract would be paid for 186 days, the school district stated.
The support employees prevailed again in the appellate court. The Court of Civil Appeals upheld the district court ruling on Jan. 26. In the unanimous opinion, the appellate court ruled the contract language is not ambiguous and affords support employees six paid holidays.
“A plain reading of the agreement specifies that if the holiday falls within the support employee’s contract year, which is defined by a specified number of contract days, then the employee is entitled to holiday,” the appellate court opinion stated.
The Mid-Del School Board discussed the matter in executive session during their monthly meeting on Feb. 12. The school district filed a petition for certiorari on Feb. 15.