Earlier this month, the New Jersey Appellate Division overturned sections of a teachers’ union contract that allowed two teachers to collect their full salaries and benefits when they did not perform any teaching duties and instead performed only union business.

In Rozenblit v. Lyles, the teachers’ collective negotiations agreement (contract) with a public school district required that the union president and a designee be permitted to commit all of their working hours to union matters. Additionally, according to the contract, they would be provided with “adequate office and parking facilities.” Both the union and the district interpreted this provision to require the board to pay the union president and/or designee their full salaries and benefits while performing union duties during working hours.

Two taxpayers brought a suit challenging this contract provision, arguing that it violates Article VIII, Section 3, Paragraph 3 of the New Jersey Constitution, which prohibits the donation of land or money by a state, county, or municipal corporation to, or for the use of, any society, association, or corporation. Additionally, the taxpayers argued that while New Jersey law allows a board to pay an employee’s salary for absences that do not qualify as sick leave, no statute allows a board to pay the teachers to spend all of their professional time conducting union business.

When the case originally came before a lower trial court, that court rejected the taxpayers’ claims, finding that the contract provisions had two purposes: (1) to facilitate the collective negotiations process, and (2) keep the labor peace in the district. The taxpayers then appealed to the Appellate Division.

The Appellate Division reversed the trial court, holding that the statute, N.J.S.A. 18A:30-7, does not permit the contractual provisions at issue here. Significantly, the court noted that N.J.S.A. 18A:30-7 allows the board to pay employees for absences that do not qualify as sick time—but here, the employees were not absent from work.

The court then looked at several provisions of the contract that were compliant with the statute, including provisions granting teaching staff bereavement leave and sabbatical leave for study or rest and recuperation. Noting that these benefits depended upon the reasonableness of the leave request, the court further observed that both the board and teacher benefit from these leaves. The leaves “serve to relieve the teacher from the pressures and emotional exhaustion experienced throughout a lengthy career,” and the teacher returns to their teaching duties refreshed.

However, the court found, there was no reciprocal benefit to the district by paying the union president and designee their salary and benefits while they were devoted full-time to union activities. Furthermore, the contract did not specifically state that the union president and designee must receive their full salary and benefits. Finally, the court concluded that if the Legislature had intended the statute to permit payment of salary and benefits for a more prolonged period as in this case, the statute would have included a time limitation, after which the benefits would terminate.

In sum, the Appellate Division held that New Jersey law and public policy prohibit payment of full salaries and benefits to union representatives who were devoted full-time to union business and activities. The extent to which a district employee may conduct union activities during work time while being paid by the district, if the employee also performs at least some teaching duties, is a question left open by this case. Similarly, the court did not address contractual terms requiring the union to reimburse the district for payment of salaries and benefits to union officials performing union duties during normal work hours.

Districts that allow or are considering allowing payment of salaries and benefits to employees who are devoting all or a substantial part of their work time to union business are encouraged to review this decision with their board attorney. For additional information, please contact the NJSBA Legal and Labor Relations Department at (609) 278-5254.