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West Coast Hotel v. Parrish

A Test Case

The Great Depression of the 1930s heated up the debate. Reformers fixed their hopes on Elsie Parrish--a grandmother. In 1933, she had gone to work as a chambermaid at the Cascadian Hotel in Wenatchee, Washington. When her job ended, the hotel offered her $17 for the balance of her services. Parrish and her husband knew that the state's minimum wage law for women (1913) had set wages at a minimum of $14.50 a week--adequate "for the decent maintenance of women" and "not detrimental to health and morals." Women could work no more than 48 hours a week.

The couple sued the hotel for $216.19 back pay due under the new scale. Parrish lost in county court, but the Washington Supreme Court upheld the minimum wage law and ordered payment. The West Coast Hotel Company appealed to the Supreme Court, basing its arguments on Adkins v. Children's Hospital. The appeal raised a dilemma for the Court: Whether in the middle of the depression the justices should reverse their decision in Adkins and protect working people.

E. L. Skeel, representing West Coast Hotel, went to the heart of the matter: The state could not deprive citizens of their right to contract their labor by passing wage or hour laws. He mocked the idea that lawmakers could get away with this by using the police power of the state. Parrish's side countered this assertion by claiming that the act was a valid and reasonable exercise of the state's police power. Citing Radice v. New York (1924), attorneys C. B. Conner and Sam M. Driver claimed the legislature had the right to decide what conditions were of public concern and how best to remedy them.

In delivering the opinion of the majority, Chief Justice Hughes reviewed the minimum wage law of the state of Washington.

Women and minors [must] be protected from conditions of labor which have a pernicious effect on their health and morals . . . Inadequate wages and unsanitary conditions of labor exert such pernicious effect.

It shall be unlawful to employ women or minors in any industry or occupation . . . under conditions . . . detrimental to their health or morals; . . . to employ women workers in any industry . . . at wages which are not adequate for their maintenance.

There is hereby created a commission to be known as the "industrial Welfare Commission" . . . to establish such standards of wages and conditions of labor for women and minors . . .

Hughes then turned his attention to whether the Washington law violated a person's freedom of contract. He denied that the Constitution protected freedom of contract. "It speaks of liberty and prohibits the deprivation of liberty without due process of law. But the liberty safeguarded requires the protection of law against the evils which menace the health, safety, morals and welfare of the people." With these few words he rejected an absolute right of freedom of contract where a strong public interest could be shown.

What can be closer to the public interest than the health of women and their protection from unscrupulous and overreaching employers? And if the protection of women is a legitimate end . . . payment of a minimum wage fairly fixed . . . is not admissible to that end? The legislature was clearly entitled to consider the situation of women in employment, the fact that they are in a class receiving the least pay, that their bargaining power is relatively weak, and that they are the ready victims of those who would take advantage of their necessitous circumstances. The legislature was entitled to adopt measures to reduce the evils of the "sweating system," the exploiting of workers at wages so low as to be insufficient to meet the bare cost of living, thus making their very helplessness the occasion of a most injurious competition.

Finally, Hughes said that when women endured exploitation their health suffered, which "casts a direct burden for their support upon the community. What these workers lose in wages the taxpayers are called upon to pay. The bare cost of living must be met."

Justice Sutherland wrote the dissent. In a curiously modern voice foreshadowing modern feminist arguments, he asked,

Does the legislation here involved . . . create an arbitrary discrimination? We think it does. Difference of sex affords no reasonable ground for making a restriction applicable to the wage contracts of all working women from which like contracts of all working men are left free. Certainly the suggestion that the bargaining ability of the average woman is not equal to that of the average man would lack substance. The ability to make a fair bargain, as everyone knows, does not depend on sex.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1918 to 1940West Coast Hotel v. Parrish - Significance, A Test Case, A Close Vote, James Clark Mcreynolds, Further Readings