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The Case Of The Chambermaid And The Nine Old Men
When Elsie Parrish was fired, her fight for justice led to dramatic changes in the nation’s highest court.
December 1986 | Volume 38, Issue 1
Just eight weeks later the U.S. Supreme Court settled any doubt on that matter by a decision on a case that, three thousand miles from Wenatchee, had begun to wend its way through the judicial system while Elsie Parrish was still making beds in the Cascadian Hotel. It arose out of the hope of social reformers in New York, especially women active in the Consumers’ League, that the Court, despite Adkins , might look favorably on a minimum wage law for women and minors if it was drafted to emphasize the value of the services rendered as well as the needs of women. To that end Felix Frankfurter of Harvard Law School and Benjamin Cohen, a former law clerk of Justice Brandeis, crafted a model law. New York State adopted it in 1933, during the fourth year of a great depression that had reduced some young women, paid starvation wages, to sleeping on subways. Frankfurter warned that it was “foolish beyond words” to expect the Court to reverse itself, but he hoped that the Justices might be willing to distinguish this statute, with its added feature of “value of services,” from the one struck down in Adkins . “Every word” of the New York law, explained a prominent woman reformer, was “written with the Supreme Court of the United States in mind.”
In accordance with the provisions of the model legislation, New York State obtained an indictment against Joseph Tipaldo, manager of the Spotlight Laundry in Brooklyn, who had been brutally exploiting his nine female employees, first by paying them far below the state minimum wage and then by pretending to pay the minimum but forcing the sweatshop laundresses to kick back the difference between what the state required and what he actually intended to pay. When Joe Tipaldo went to jail to stand trial on charges of disobeying the mandatory wage order and of forgery, the hotel industry (the same business that would be involved in the Parrish case) rushed to his side with an offer to bankroll a test of the constitutionality of the New York law. Since hotels were working their employees twelve hours a day, seven days a week, they had a high stake in the case. In fact, the state had already begun minimum wage proceedings against them. Consequently, each hotel put money in a kitty to finance Tipaldo’s petition for a writ of habeas corpus to compel the warden of Brooklyn’s city prison to release the laundry manager from custody. While his case was being prepared, Tipaldo, utterly shameless, renamed his firm the Bright Light Laundry and made a big investment in expanding his business. He explained, “I expect to get it back eventually on what I save in wages.”
On June 1,1936, the United States Supreme Court appeared to justify his optimism when, in a 5-4 decision, it struck down New York’s minimum wage law. In a sweeping opinion by one of the most conservative Justices, the Court said that there was no meaningful difference between the New York statute and the D.C. act that had been invalidated in Adkins , for both violated the liberty of contract that safeguarded equally the rights of employer and employee to bargain about wages. After quoting from Adkins with obvious approval, the Court declared, in language that shocked champions of social reform, “The decision and the reasoning upon which it rests clearly show that the State is without power by any form of legislation to prohibit, change or nullify contracts between employers and adult women workers as to the amount of wages to be paid.” Those words all but doomed Elsie Parrish’s cause, and gave Joe Tipaldo the victory of a lifetime.
That victory, however, turned out to carry a very high price. “After the court decision, business looked good for a while,” Joe told a reporter three months later. “1 was able to undercharge my competitors a little on what I saved in labor costs.” But then business started to fall off, then fell some more. “I think this fight was the cause of my trouble,” he said. “My customers wouldn’t give my drivers their wash.” Before the summer was over, the Bright Light Laundry had folded and Joe Tipaldo was unemployed. “I’m broke now,” he confessed. “I couldn’t stand the gaff.”
Elsie Parrish was made of sterner stuff. She was determined to carry on her struggle, though her prospects seemed bleak indeed. Given the precedent of Adkins , her case had never been promising. At one point the attorney for the West Coast Hotel Company asked the Washington Supreme Court judge who had written the opinion sustaining that state’s minimum wage law in Parrish how he could possibly have done so in view of what the U.S. Supreme Court had said in Adkins . The judge replied, “Well, let’s let the Supreme Court say it one more time.” Now, in Tipaldo , the Court had stated unequivocally “one more time” that minimum wage laws for women were invalid. So gloomy was the outlook that, on the advice of Ben Cohen and Felix Frankfurter, the Consumers’ League did not even file a brief in Parrish . “We are both rather pessimistic regarding its outcome,” Cohen confided. Elsie Parrish had every reason to expect the worst.