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Adkins v. Children's Hospital

Significance

The Supreme Court ruled that Congress does not have the power to set minimum wages for women as a special group, slowing down the Consumers' League drive to show that a ceiling on wages without a floor left women vulnerable. It also stopped efforts to equalize pay between men and women, a discrepancy that remained until the Equal Pay Act of 1963.

Willie Lyons, a 21-year-old elevator operator, desperately wanted to keep her job. Lyons worked at the Congress Hall Hotel in Washington, D.C. where many members of Congress and their families lived. She felt that the work was easy, the hours short, and the surroundings clean and pleasant. She had been happy at work and with her pay--$35 a month, plus two meals a day.

Then the District of Columbia Minimum Wage Board set $16.50 a week as the base pay for all female hotel workers. The Congress Hall Hotel had to fire her, or face legal penalties. Lyons knew she could not find a better job elsewhere for the same salary. So she petitioned the court for an injunction to keep the board--under Jesse Adkins--from enforcing its orders on the Congress Hall Hotel.

On 19 September 1918, Congress passed a law establishing the District of Columbia Minimum Wage Board. This statute set the minimum wage paid to any woman or child working in the nation's capital. For example, the board had fixed a weekly salary of $16.50 for women employed where food was served, $15.50 for those who worked in printing, and $15 for laundry workers, with beginning laundresses earning $9. Lyons feared her skills could not realistically command these wages in the competitive marketplace, and that her current wages were the best she could earn. If the Congress Hall Hotel fired her, Lyons knew she would not find work elsewhere.

At the same time that Lyons was trying to obtain an injunction against the board's decision, the Children's Hospital of the District of Columbia was having its own problems with the Minimum Wage Board. The hospital employed a large number of women in a variety of different jobs. A few of them earned less than $16.50 a week. Like Lyons, the hospital sued to restrain the board from enforcing its minimum wage ruling on the ground that it violated the Fifth Amendment's Due Process Clause.

However, in both cases the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia affirmed the constitutionality of the law. On appeal, the Court of Appeals of the District of Columbia affirmed the lower court's decision. Yet after a rehearing, the court reversed its judgment, and a divided bench declared the law unconstitutional. Further appeals carried the two cases, Adkins v. Children's Hospital and Adkins v. Lyons, to the Supreme Court of the United States.

The legal questions the Court faced were whether Congress had the power to prescribe a minimum wage for women in the District of Columbia, or if such wage-fixing by restricting an individual's "liberty of contract" (protected by Due Process Clauses of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments) was an unconstitutional use of the state's police power. Further, it was questionable whether the law was discriminatory, because it protected only women.

Legal and political controversy swirled about these questions. In Lochner v. New York (1905) the Supreme Court held that it was unconstitutional for New York to limit the number of hours male bakers could work to ten per day. However, in Bunting v. Oregon (1917), the justices upheld a law setting ten hours as the maximum hours per day that people could work in mills, factories, or manufacturing.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1918 to 1940Adkins v. Children's Hospital - Significance, Protective Legislation V. Equality, But Are They Constitutional?, History Of The Minimum Wage