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Way back in the 1980s, the BBC and PBS broadcasted a documentary TV series with this title, devoted to explaining how critical scientific discoveries and advances in technology fundamentally changed the way we understand the world.

A change to the universe of the American workplace happened today at the Supreme Court of the United States. The Court issued a long-anticipated decision certain to have cascading effects on many long-standing legal rules we are accustomed to.

In particular, the Court overruled a forty-year old case called Chevron U.S.A. Inc. v. National Resources Defense Council, Inc. That 1984 case was the source of the legal doctrine known as “Chevron deference” – which is (or more accurately now, was) what prompted courts to defer to interpretations of federal law made by federal agencies charged with the administration and enforcement of federal statutes.

Federal agencies like the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the Department of Labor (DOL) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Much of the work of these federal agencies and others involves determinations made by agency officials, presumably with special expertise in the area of the agency’s mission.

For example, in 2019 the DOL issued a rule establishing a mandatory minimum salary level necessary for what are termed “white collar” salaried employees to be exempt from an employer’s obligation to pay overtime compensation. A lawsuit was filed challenging the DOL rule as outside the DOL’s authority, but a federal court upheld the rule, determining in part that the adoption of the minimum-salary-level rule was within the scope of the DOL’s authority to interpret the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), and the federal court gave “controlling weight” to the DOL’s interpretation. And so, the new salary level went into effect.

Today, with the end of Chevron deference, that case would almost certainly be decided differently. That matters a great deal, because there is a new DOL rule, establishing a new, raised mandatory minimum salary level. That rule is itself the subject of a pending court challenge seeking to prevent the rule from going into effect, as it is scheduled to do – on Monday.

Today’s ruling will have significant consequences for many other workplace rules issued by federal agencies under federal statutes, like the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, as a federal agency’s interpretation of those statutes will no longer always guide a court’s analysis of the law. A pending court challenge to the new rule issued by the Federal Trade Commission governing non-compete agreements is certain to be adjudicated soon, and the end of Chevron deference could have dispositive effects there, too.

For employers, the regulatory universe has changed. Over the coming weeks and months, we’ll begin to find out just how much. Watch this space.