By Robert Hockett (Cornell Law School)
The Blackjewel Coal bankruptcy of summer 2019 exposed critical weaknesses in our state-based system of employee creditor protection. Notwithstanding employees’ priority over other unsecured creditors in bankruptcy, and notwithstanding a bonding requirement imposed by the State of Kentucky, Blackjewel’s final round of paychecks paid to employees ‘bounced,’ confronting employees with imminent personal bankruptcies, forgone medical and other services, and even mortgage foreclosure and homelessness.
Happily, ultimate resolution of the Blackjewel case later in autumn saw the employees made whole and the company investigated for fraud. But this solution was anything but assured before it was reached, and employees in any event suffered substantial harm in the form of disrupted family budgets and substantial uncertainty as to ultimate recovery for months – including, critically, just as a new school year was commencing for employee families’ children.
It would seem well advised, then, to put in place a more permanent and reliable process for cases like that of Blackjewel and its employees. What is needed is a solution that is uniformly applicable, reliable, and known in advance such that all concerned parties can bargain and plan ‘in the shadow’ of the regime. Our present arrangements are subject to vagaries of state law and state budgets that vary across state jurisdictional space and fiscal time. The obvious solution to the difficulties raised by such variance is to subject this realm, like that of bankruptcy itself, to federal legislation.
A bill I have recently drafted and advocated aims to ‘fit the bill’ in effect called-for by the Blackjewel affair. It does so by (a) assigning the Department of Labor (‘DOL’) a permanent representation role in future employer insolvencies; (b) federalizing the employer bonding requirements now found only in inconsistently administered state laws; (c) establishing an Employee Liquidity Support Fund to tide employees over while bankruptcy proceedings are pending; and (d) holding employing-firms’ executive officers personally liable for violations of the Act’s requirements.
The reason for DOL representation and oversight is to ensure that employees have a coherent and powerful representative ‘at the table’ during insolvency proceedings – one that is endowed with oversight authority not only during, but in advance of insolvencies.
The reason for federalizing employer bonding requirements is that states often vary over time in respect of the seriousness with which they administer such requirements, presumably in part for reasons sounding in lobbying pressures and ideology but also for reasons of basic capacity – large employers, after all, often are ‘bigger’ than the states that would supervise them.
The reason for establishing an Employee Liquidity Support Fund is presumably obvious. What made Blackjewel’s travails so hard on employees was precisely the fact that ultimate resolution was long in coming, while employee families’ daily living expenses couldn’t ‘wait.’ Against such a backdrop it makes sense for DOL to do for employees what our Federal Reserve does for financial institutions while insolvency and consolidation proceedings are underway – viz., provide tide-over funding.
Finally, the reason for holding executive officers personally liable for compliance with the Act’s requirements should be obvious as well. For again as in the case of financial institutions, so here the only surefire way of ‘incentivizing’ firms to comply is to incentivize those through whom all firms act – their executives, as the term ‘executive’ (derived from ‘execute’) itself suggests. Diffuse shareholders, who often lack power over corporate officers, and insider shareholders, who often have interests at odds with the interests of non-executive employees in any event, simply aren’t up to the task.
Employing firms, their executives and their owners have enjoyed multiple forms of state patronage for decades in our nation, while employees have in general enjoyed only sporadic assistance from public sector institutions and, less now than any time since the early 20th century, labor unions. This Act will help further a cause that’s increasingly now recognized once again to be both morally and economically compelling: That is the task of protecting the interests of our own productive citizenry – our labor force.
The full article is available here.