The Case Of The Chambermaid And The Nine Old Men

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When, on a spring day in 1935, Elsie Parrish walked into the office of an obscure lawyer in Wenatchee, Washington, to ask him to sue the town’s leading hotel for back pay, she had no idea she was linking her fate to that of exploited women in a Brooklyn laundry a whole continent away. Still less did she think that she was setting off a series of events that would deeply affect President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s plans for his second term. Least of all did she perceive that she was triggering a constitutional revolution that, even today, remains the most significant chapter in the two centuries of existence of the United States Supreme Court. All that Elsie knew was that she had been bilked.

Late in the summer of 1933, Elsie Lee, a woman of about forty who would soon be Elsie Parrish, had taken a job as a chambermaid at the Cascadian Hotel in Wenatchee, entrepôt for a beautiful recreation area reaching from the Columbia valley to the Cascades, and the country’s foremost apple market. “Apples made Wenatchee and apples maintain it,” noted the WPA guide to Washington; “it is surrounded by a sea of orchards, covered in spring with a pink foam of blossoms, mile upon mile, filling the valleys and covering the slopes; the air of the town is sweet with the fragrance.” Here, in the land of Winesaps and Jonathans, where “in summer and fall the spicy odor of apples is everywhere,” Elsie worked irregularly over the next year and a half at cleaning toilets and sweeping rugs for an hourly wage of twenty-two cents, later raised to a quarter. When she was discharged in May 1935, she asked for back pay of $216.19, the difference between what she had received and what she would have gotten if she had been paid each week the $14.50 minimum wage required for her occupation under state law. The Cascadian, which was owned by the West Coast Hotel Company, offered to settle for a total of $17.00, but she would not hear of it. Instead, she, together with her husband, Ernest, brought suit for all that was due her.

Elsie and Ernest rested their case on the provisions of a statute that had been enacted by Washington State a quarter of a century before when, catching the contagion of reform from neighboring Oregon, the state legislature had taken steps to wipe out sweatshops. The 1913 act declared it “unlawful to employ women or minors … under conditions of labor detrimental to their health or morals; and … to employ women workers in any industry … at wages which are not adequate for their maintenance.” To safeguard the welfare of female employees, the law established a commission that was authorized to call together employers, employees, and representatives of the public who would recommend a wage standard “not detrimental to health and morals, and which shall be sufficient for the decent maintenance of women.” On receiving that recommendation, the commission was to issue an order stipulating the minimum wage that must be paid. For chambermaids, the weekly minimum was set at $14.50. Twice the statute had been challenged in the courts, and on both occasions the Washington Supreme Court had validated the act. Elsie Parrish appeared to have an airtight case.

Alas, any law student in the land could have told her that her case was hopeless, for, twelve years before, the United States Supreme Court had ruled, in a widely reported decision, Adkins v. Children’s Hospital , that a minimum wage act for women was unconstitutional because it violated the liberty of contract that the Court claimed was guaranteed by the Constitution. Though the opinion by Justice George Sutherland commanded only five votes and elicited vigorous dissents, it reconfirmed a notion incorporated in constitutional doctrine only a generation before: that a great corporation and its employee—even someone as powerless as a chambermaid—each has an equivalent right to bargain about wages, a fantasy that Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes dismissed as “dogma” and the renowned commentator Thomas Reed Powell of Harvard Law School called “indefensible.” Adkins , said one commentator, “makes forever impossible all other legislation along similar lines involving the regulation of wages.” In principle Elsie’s case was no different from Adkins . Any statute that deprived a person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law, was disallowed. Though the Washington law remained on the books, it was presumed to be null and void. Hence, it startled no one when, in November 1935, after hearing Elsie’s case, the presiding judge of the Superior Court of Chelan County, explaining that Adkins bound every court in the nation, ruled against her.

Surprisingly, the Supreme Court of the state of Washington took a different view. On April 2,1936, it overturned the lower court’s decision, thereby finding in Elsie Parrish’s favor. To get around the huge obstacle of Adkins , the court pointed out that the U.S. Supreme Court had never struck down a state minimum wage law, which was true but irrelevant. The decision gave the Parrishes a moment of euphoria, but it hardly seemed likely that this opinion would, in the light of Adkins and the hostility of Justices such as Sutherland, survive a test in the United States Supreme Court.