Tag Archives: health care

Health Care Workers and Labor Unions: The COVID “Bump” and the New Administration’s Efforts to Unionize More Workers

Contributed By Beverly Alfon and Michael Hughes, April 28, 2021

COVID-19 Pandemic Allows Unions to Make Inroads with Health Care Workers

For health care workers, the issues of staffing, wages and benefits are typically what unions have focused on in their organizing campaigns. Against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, these issues are heightened with the added urgency of worker safety. The realities created by the pandemic have and will likely continue to make their impact on health care workers – even prompting some who never may have considered union representation – to reconsider their position. For example, in September 2020, nurses at a hospital in Asheville, North Carolina, voted to become unionized. Yes!  North Carolina, a traditionally red, anti-union state. The union won 70% of the vote. The nurses cited issues related to PPE, testing and exposure notification inconsistencies.

Unions have certainly taken notice of this opportunity to organize and are seizing it. After all, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, by 2028 some 3.4 million new jobs will be added in health care and social assistance. The sector will account for about a third of all new employment in the U.S. by that time. In August 2020, a Colorado state inspection revealed that understaffing led to a patient death at a Denver area hospital. The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) local union – which does not represent the employees at the hospital – nonetheless engaged in an aggressive campaign alleging unsafe practices by the hospital’s parent company.

Health care workers who are already unionized – who in the past may have been complacent about union objectives and work issues – also appear to have become galvanized and willing to take action, including voting to strike. At the end of 2020, health workers in multiple states went on strike over staffing issues and pay. 

  • In Chicago, about 6,000 certified nursing assistants and food service and housekeeping employees at 64 nursing home facilities called off a planned strike after reaching a tentative agreement with employers for higher base pay, hazard pay, adequate personal protective equipment and paid sick days related to COVID-19.
  • In Providence, Rhode Island, about 100 nursing assistants and maintenance workers and other staff at a nursing home began a strike over demands for mandatory minimum staffing levels and pay increases. The strike followed a series of protests following outbreaks of coronavirus in nursing homes in Rhode Island and across country exposed staffing shortages. 
  • Near Philadelphia, nurses went on strike at a hospital. A month later, the owner of the hospital announced a labor agreement with the nurses’ union that gave nurses “a voice in discussions on staffing” while preserving the hospital’s right and authority to make all staffing decisions. 
  • In Chicago, nearly 700 caregivers walked off the job at 11 nursing homes, apparently triggered by the company’s discontinuance of hazard pay during the pandemic. A tentative agreement was reached after a 12-day strike, including significant wage increases, pandemic pay increase, additional five days of COVID-19 related sick time, and significant PPE guarantees and protections.
  • In Albany, New York, hundreds of nurses went on strike, citing issues wages and benefits, understaffing, and the hospital’s handling of the pandemic.
  • In Connecticut, nursing home workers continue to inch towards a major strike with initial union votes at 33 facilities overwhelmingly favoring a strike.

Clearly, COVID-19 is strengthening organized labor’s appeal and lengthening its reach. Couple that with a pro-labor agenda in the Biden administration and in Congress, and we are staring at a galvanized labor movement.

The Pro-Union Agenda at the Biden Administration and the National Labor Relations Board

On the eve of the presidential election in 2020, nominee Joe Biden vowed to be “the most pro-union president you’ve ever seen.” Upon being sworn in, President Biden wasted no time in making headway toward that promise. On his very first day in office, President Biden fired the National Labor Relations Board’s General Counsel, Peter Robb. The NLRB GC determines which cases are prosecuted at the labor board, and in so doing, sets policy initiatives and labor law enforcement guidance. Robb’s term was not set to expire until November 2021, and his firing marked the first time in history that an incoming President fired the sitting NLRB GC without letting him serve out his term. (The next day President Biden also fired the NLRB’s Deputy GC). Union leaders had called for Biden to sack Robb over their disagreement with Robb’s policy prerogatives and what they perceived as an anti-union agenda. Within days, the acting NLRB GC appointed by President Biden issued memorandums reversing many of Robb’s policy directives—unsurprisingly all of those reversals favored labor unions (but not necessarily workers). Among the policy provisions established by the acting GC’s newly issued guidance memos are provisions giving unions wider protection against accountability when they fail to properly represent workers’ rights; allowing unions to hide certain dues information from workers; and allowing unions to limit the time frame for workers to rescind a dues authorization.

In the coming months, the makeup of the 5-member NLRB (the body that makes final determinations in cases of alleged unfair labor practices and union representation issues) will also swing from its current Republican majority, to a Democratic majority, as there currently is one vacant seat waiting to be filled, and another seat will expire on August 27, 2021. With these changes (at the GC and board levels) it is a certainty that the NLRB will begin a period where its policy and enforcement priorities make it easier for unions to organize unrepresented employees; give unions additional ammunition and leverage in organizing campaigns and at the bargaining table; and remove employer tools to resist or counter union organizing.  

Congress Advances Union-Friendly Legislation

Not to be outdone by the Executive branch, Congress also is moving quickly to appease its labor union constituents, mainly through the re-introduction of the Union-friendly, “PRO Act.” We recently wrote about the nuts and bolts of that pending legislation, which has passed the House of Representatives and awaits action by the Senate. Currently, 47 of the 50 Democratic senators support the PRO Act, and labor unions and other organizing groups have set out to bombard the remaining three Democratic senators with an onslaught of demonstrations, phone calls, and other pressure tactics, in order to bring them to heel. The PRO Act would nearly completely re-write labor law as we know it, with an aim to making it a near impossibility for any organization to resist a union organizing campaign. Among the many drastic changes to long-standing labor law, the PRO Act would:

  • Outlaw Right-to-Work laws;
  • Remove any and all restrictions on Union strike activities (including removal of restrictions against intermittent strikes, partial strikes, and slow-down strikes);
  • Allow unions to strike and boycott directly against entities they have no labor dispute with, in order to pressure that entity to stop dealing with a company the Union does have a dispute with;
  • Impose penalties against employers who commit unfair labor practices (up to $50,000 for a first offense);
  • Erode the sanctity of secret ballot elections, allowing the Union alone to name the means and manner of election (mail ballot, off-site election, electronic election) and providing for a second-chance “card-check” election, if the Union loses and alleges an unfair labor practice;
  • Ban an employer’s ability to withdraw recognition from a union, even if 100% of all employees sign a petition saying they no longer want the union; and
  • Many more pro-union provisions.

While the PRO Act is not yet law (and likely will not be enacted wholesale, unless the Senate scuttles the filibuster), it is increasingly likely that certain portions of the PRO Act will find their way in to other legislation in the upcoming legislative sessions. Again, all of these developments are for one simple purpose: making it easier for unions to organize new groups of workers. As noted above, health care facilities, especially including long-term care facilities, have been a special focal point for many union organizing drives of late, with savvy union leaders leaning on the COVID-19 pandemic to make inroads with employees in the industry. A union-friendly Administration, NLRB, and Congress will only aid and embolden the SEIU and other unions seeking to organize health care workers to redouble their efforts.

What to Do?

  1. Get your union avoidance plan in place.
  2. Identify who your “supervisors” are (as defined by the National Labor Relations Act) and get them trained on identifying and dealing with union organizing. A “supervisor” cannot be represented by a union. They are also agents of your company, so training is key. They should be directed on what their role should be in avoiding union organizing and what they can and cannot do and say in the event that union organizing begins.
  3. Review policies for clarity, perceived unfairness, and employee relations. A union will often focus employees on (real or perceived) unfair policies or unequal implementation of work rules.
  4. Benchmark wages and benefits. A union will often promise more money. So, it is best to be prepared with a response.
  5. Identify employee relations problems now and deal with them before employees turn to a union. Get feedback from the group of employees who are vulnerable to union organization. Sometimes, it is as simple as tweaking a supervisor’s management-style.
  6. Train management on positive employee relations. Your supervisors need to know about the importance of providing regular feedback to employees and maintaining open communication with them.
  7. Get a communications plan in place in the event that union organizing begins or has begun.
  8. In light of current union tactics of staging demonstrations and strikes, even in support of organizing efforts, it also is advisable to have a comprehensive strike plan in place, especially once organizing efforts become known.

Being aware of the potential threat of union organizing at your workplace is not enough. Far too often employers are surprised when union organizing begins or a formal petition for recognition is filed. Assessment and planning are necessary now so that if the need arises, a response can be timely, effective, and within the parameters of the National Labor Relations Act. 

Opioids in the Workplace

Contributed by Michael Wong, November 3, 2017

One of the first questions I ask when providing drug and alcohol training to managers, supervisors and employees is “What is the most commonly used illegal drug?” Typically, the response that I get will be alcohol (albeit not illegal) or marijuana. What most do not realize until the training is that prescription drugs, in particular opioids, are the most commonly abused illegal drug. Prescription opioids include hydrocodone, oxycodone, morphine, codeine and fentanyl, while illegal opioids include heroin.

J0337282Opioid use in the United States has started to take on a whole new form and is now commonly referred to as the opioid epidemic. Illinois has not escaped the opioid epidemic; in 2016 there were 2,278 drug overdose deaths of which over 80% (1,826) were opioid related. The number of opioid related deaths in 2016 was an increase of over 30% of the opioid related deaths in 2015 and an increase of over 70% of the number of opioid related deaths in 2013.

In looking at these numbers, it is important to understand that these are only the deaths – not the actual number of individuals using or abusing opioids. In a recent study by the National Safety Counsel, over one in three Illinois residents (35%) reported being impacted by opioid/heroin use by knowing someone (self, family/friend, co-worker/co-workers’ family, or neighbor/neighbor’s family) that started using opioids/heroin, became addicted to opioid/heroin, survived an opioid/heroin overdose or had died from an opioid/heroin overdose. Indeed, one issue with the opioid epidemic is that the gateway to opioid use does not always come from illegal activities, but can start out with a legitimate legal prescription. When there is a valid use for a prescription drug, an individual can feel like they are not doing anything wrong and their use can quickly turn into a slippery slope of addiction, activities that negatively impacts their work performance and potentially illegal activities. As a result of this, the opioid epidemic does not discriminate and can be found across all demographics, industries and positions.

One of the concerns with opioids for employers is that it is more difficult to tell if someone is under the influence or using opioids or heroin than other more traditional drugs. For instance, opioids and heroin do not come with symptoms or indicators that are easy to perceive like with alcohol – a smell, shaking hands and movements, and behavior changes; or with marijuana – a smell, red eyes, delayed reaction time, anxiety, and lack of coordination. With opioids, it is often difficult for employers to make the connection between an employee appearing groggy, sleepy or forgetful in the workplace to being linked to drug use. Indeed, what employers will typically see, if anything at all, is a gradual decline in an employee’s attendance and performance, until the employee loses their job or stops coming to work altogether.

The traditional tool of employers to identify and prevent drug and alcohol use within the workplace is drug testing. Pre-hire drug testing can be effective in preventing illegal opioid users from joining the workforce. However, drug testing is not always effective where the opioid user has a legal prescription or where the individual is not yet an opioid user. Reasonable suspicion drug testing can also be effective, but first requires reasonable suspicion of opioid use which can be difficult to identify.

So what does this leave? First and foremost, employers should re-evaluate their drug policies and testing procedures and understand the potential legal implications. For example, drug testing can be modified to test for legal prescription medications, but in order to avoid a violation of the ADA the applicant or employee must be able to provide an explanation for the positive drug test, such as a prescribed medication. Additionally, employers must realize that even if the employee is using prescription medication, there may be an underlying medical condition that they need to be aware of to avoid any kind of disability discrimination claim.

Next, employers should consider questioning its health care benefit carrier and workers’ compensation carrier on what actions they are taking to address the opioid epidemic and collaborating with them on any specialized programs or options for addressing. This can include learning about whether the carrier has programs for the conservative use and risk of prescription opioids, an opioid management program and/or a prescription benefit management program, which can help in preventing prescription medication abuse and identify the abuse of prescription medications. In doing so, employers should also consider investing in an employee assistance program (EAP), which can help employees avoid or address addiction.

Another investment that can pay dividends is management and employee education. Better training and education for not only management, but also employees regarding the impacts of opioids, how to identify opioid use and how to address opioid abuse. Management training can help make management more aware of how to identify potential issues before they occur and get employees help before it escalates to more serious problems. This includes not only taking into consideration the symptoms of opioid and other drug use, but also recognizing changes in how employees are acting, their performance, their attendance, any recent injuries they have had and any other issues that could indicate drug abuse. Employee training can help employees understand the danger of opioids, how the use of legal use of prescription opioids can lead to addiction, and what steps can be taken to seek assistance. Of course, any training should be tailored to include information regarding the Company’s policies, drug testing, benefit programs and reassurances regarding the Company’s commitment to providing confidential and accessible help and treatment.

Finally, one thing to remember is that despite the high numbers of deaths in 2016 in Illinois, Illinois is still behind many states in its exposure to the opioid epidemic. Indeed, in some places manufacturing employers have found using pre-hiring drug testing was not effective. The reason for this is it significantly increased the number of applicants they have had to go through in order to hire for a position or was making it near impossible to fill their staffing needs due to applicants not returning after learning there was drug testing or applicants consistently failing the drug test.

 

“Cadillac Tax” on Health Plans Delayed Until 2020

Contributed by Kelly Haab-Tallitsch

Employers are receiving a temporary reprieve from the controversial “Cadillac Tax” on health plans as part of a large spending and tax bill signed into law by President Obama on Friday, December 18, 2015. The Consolidated Appropriations Act (the “Act”) delays the effective date of the Affordable Care Act’s (ACA’s) excise tax on so-called high cost health plans, known as the “Cadillac Tax,” until January 1, 2020.

The Cadillac Tax, previously scheduled to take effect on January 1, 2018, is a 40% excise tax on employers and insurers who offer health insurance plans that exceed specified high-cost limits ($10,200 for individuals and $27,000 for families for 2018). The 40% tax applies to the cost of the plan above these thresholds.

In addition to the delay, the Act makes the Cadillac Tax a tax-deductible expense for employers, somewhat cushioning its impact. The Act also calls for an examination of suitable benchmarks to be used for the adjustment of the excise tax thresholds in future years.

The delay comes after mounting criticism of the Cadillac Tax from employers, insurers, labor unions and lawmakers. Critics argue that the tax, which was expected to affect an estimated 25% to 30% of employers in 2018, and as many as 50% within the next 10 years, unfairly penalizes employers and unionized workers and will ultimately lead to employees paying more out of pocket for medical expenses.

What Does this Mean for Employers?

While opponents of the Cadillac Tax are citing the delay as the first step towards a repeal of the tax, employers must remain cautious and plan for the tax to be implemented in 2020. Employers should continue evaluating the costs of the health coverage offered to their employees and begin to consider alternatives to reduce exposure to the tax in 2020. Additionally, employers should review the accounting consequences of the now deductible Cadillac Tax.

Paid Sick Leave Mandate For Federal Contractors Beginning In 2017

Contributed by Julie A. Proscia and Steven W. Jados

On Monday, President Obama signed an Executive Order outlining the paid sick leave benefits that many federal contractors will be required to provide as early as January 1, 2017.

A wide range of federal contracts entered into on or after January 1, 2017, and any subcontracts entered into thereunder, will be required to include language under which employees will earn no less than one hour of paid sick leave for every 30 hours worked under covered contracts.

That leave may be used by an employee for absences due to any of the following:

(i) Physical or mental illness, injury, or medical condition;

(ii) Obtaining diagnosis, care, or preventative care from a health care provider;

(iii) caring for a child, a parent, a spouse, a domestic partner, or any other individual related by blood or affinity whose close association with the employee is the equivalent of a family relationship who has any of the conditions or needs for diagnosis, care, or preventive care described in paragraphs (i) or (ii) of this subsection or is otherwise in need of care; or

(iv) domestic violence, sexual assault, or stalking, if the time absent from work is for the purposes otherwise described in paragraphs (i) and (ii) of this subsection, to obtain additional counseling, to seek relocation, to seek assistance from a victim services organization, to take related legal action, including preparation for or participation in any related civil or criminal legal proceeding, or to assist an individual related to the employee as described in paragraph (iii) of this subsection in engaging in any of these activities.

Absent employeeRequests to use this paid sick leave are to be made orally or in writing, at least seven days prior to the request—or as soon as practicable if the need for leave is not foreseeable—and such requests are to include the anticipated duration of the employee’s leave. Covered employers may not condition an employee’s use of leave earned under the Order on an employee finding his or her own replacement to cover missed work. Employers also may not require certification from a medical provider of the need for leave under Sections (i), (ii), or (iii), above, unless an employee is absent for three or more consecutive days. If an employee is absent three or more consecutive days for a reason covered by Section (iv), above, the employer may require a limited certification from an appropriate individual or organization.

Covered employees must be allowed to accrue no fewer than 56 hours (approximately seven days) of paid sick leave each year and, as the Order is presently drafted, all such accrued but unused sick leave may be carried-over year after year with no limitation.  Additionally, if an employee separates from covered employment, but is rehired within 12 months of the separation, the employee’s paid sick leave accrued under the Order as of the separation date must be reinstated.  The Order does not, however, require unused sick leave to be paid-out to employees upon separation from employment.

Federal contractors and subcontractors who already have paid leave policies need not make any changes to those policies, so long as an existing policy provides at least as much leave as the Order requires and that leave can be used for the reasons and under the conditions described in the Order. That said, paid sick leave under the Order is to be in addition to any prior obligations that an employer may have under other provisions of federal law.

The contracts to which the Order applies will generally include any new contract or contract-like instrument, provided:

(i)  (A) it is a procurement contract for services or construction;

(B) it is a contract or contract-like instrument for services covered by the Service Contract Act;

(C) it is a contract or contract-like instrument for concessions, including any concessions contract excluded by Department of Labor regulations at 29 CFR 4.133 (b); or

(D) it is a contract or contract-like instrument entered into with the Federal Government in connection with Federal property or lands and related to offering services for federal employees, their dependents, or the general public; and

(ii) The wages of employees under such contract or contract-like instrument are governed by the Davis-Bacon Act, the Service Contract Act, or the Fair Labor Standards Act, including employees who qualify for an exemption from its minimum wage and overtime provisions.

Independent federal agencies are strongly encouraged, but not required to comply with the requirements of the Order.

The Executive Order also contains anti-discrimination, anti-interference, and anti-retaliation provisions, and calls for the Department of Labor to implement any necessary regulations under the Order by September 30, 2016.