U.S. Tries New Tactic to Protect Workers’ Pay: Antitrust Law

In 2007, the Justice Department sued the Arizona Hospital and Healthcare Association for fixing the rates that hospitals paid to nursing agencies for their temporary nurses, putting a cap on their wages. In settling the case, the association agreed to abandon the practice.

The pace picked up after a Justice Department lawsuit in 2010 taking aim at no-poaching agreements involving Adobe, Apple, Google, Intel, Intuit, Pixar and later Lucasfilm. The companies settled the case without admitting guilt or paying fines, but Adobe, Apple, Google and Intel paid $415 million to settle a subsequent class-action lawsuit.

Since then, lawsuits have been filed across the industrial landscape. Pixar, Disney and Lucasfilm paid $100 million to settle an antitrust challenge to their agreements not to hire one another’s animation engineers. In 2019, 15 “cultural exchange” sponsors designated by the State Department paid $65.5 million to settle a lawsuit claiming, among other things, that they colluded to depress the wages of tens of thousands of au pairs on J-1 visas. Since 2019 Duke University and the University of North Carolina have paid nearly $75 million to settle two antitrust cases over agreements not to recruit each other’s faculty members.

This month, Local 32BJ of the Service Employees International Union filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission arguing that Planned Companies, one of the largest building services contractors in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic, illegally forbids its clients to hire its janitors, concierges or security guards either directly or through another firm — locking its workers in.

In perhaps the biggest case of all, in 2019 a class action was filed against the American chicken industry, growing to cover some 20 producers responsible for about 90 percent of the poultry market. The complaint accused them of exchanging detailed wage information to fix the wages of about a quarter-million employees, including hourly workers deboning chickens, refrigeration technicians and feed-mill supervisors on a salary.

Four of the chicken processors have settled, agreeing to pay tens of millions of dollars. In February, Webber, Meng, Sahl & Company, one of two firms that collected wage data for the poultry companies, settled as well, offering a fairly clear window into the industry’s attempts to suppress wages.

In a declaration to the court, part of the settlement agreement, the law firm’s president, Jonathan Meng, said the chicken companies had used the firm “as an unwitting tool to conceal their misconduct.” He offered details about how poultry executives would share detailed wage information. “They wanted to know how much and when their competitors were planning to increase salaries and salary ranges,” he said, because it would allow them “to limit and reduce their salary increases and salary range increases.”

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