A major Maine hospital system vaccinated anti-union consultants brought in from out of state to fight a staff unionization effort, drawing rebukes from a nurses union and the state’s governor.
MaineHealth, which operates Maine Medical Center in Portland, acknowledged that it violated state vaccine protocols by administering the doses to a group of people with Reliant Labor Consultants, a firm that helps employers scuttle union organizing drives.
A MaineHealth spokesperson said in a statement that the hospital offered the vaccine to a “small number” of those consultants in mid-January “in an effort to fully protect our care team.” But that decision had run afoul of newly updated guidance from the state that only Maine residents would be eligible for the vaccine.
“We understand that non-Maine residents are not eligible for any vaccine and acknowledge that we erred in vaccinating those individuals,” said MaineHealth, which runs several community hospitals in the state, with Maine Medical Center as its flagship.
Cokie Giles, president of the Maine State Nurses Association, which is seeking to represent nurses at the hospital, said the decision showed a lack of respect for the nurses and the broader community.
“They’re not front-line people. They should not have been the priority to get those vaccinations,” Giles, a registered nurse at another facility, said in an interview with HuffPost. “I have friends of mine in their 70s who get up at 6 o’clock every morning to go online and try to get their [vaccination] appointments.”
Maine Gov. Janet Mills (D) rebuked the hospital for administering the vaccines to the consultants, calling it “an inexcusable act.” She said in a statement Tuesday that “vaccinating out-of-state contractors who came here to disrupt a union organizing effort was an insult to the hardworking nurses trying to assert their rights and to those who are waiting patiently for their turn.”
“They’re not front-line people. They should not have been the priority to get those vaccinations.”
The vaccinations came to light due to reporting by Bill Nemitz of the Portland Press Herald. In a column published Sunday, he detailed how MaineHealth was vaccinating its entire workforce regardless of their duties, including those who work remotely. Nemitz wrote that he had received a tip that the union avoidance consultants had been vaccinated as well.
In its statement, MaineHealth defended the policy to vaccinate all staff, saying even those who telecommute may be dispatched to work on-site with little notice. But it now acknowledges that vaccinating the consultants conflicted with state policy. MaineHealth said the consultants were there to “provide support to nurses and managers in answering questions about the impact of joining a union.”
Reliant Labor Consultants did not respond to requests for comment from HuffPost.
It’s common practice for employers facing a union drive to bring in consultants who specialize in “union avoidance.” Such consultants typically hold group meetings with employees to discourage them from voting in favor of the union in an election. Such influence is legal so long as managers and consultants don’t step over certain lines.
It makes sense that MaineHealth would want anyone taking part in a meeting with its nurses to be vaccinated, given the safety implications for front-line staff and patients. But vaccines are still in limited supply, and union-busting does not appear to be an essential service under the government’s critical infrastructure guidelines.
Each state has been developing its own vaccination schedule. At this point, Maine is still focused on vaccinating front-line workers and residents over 70 years of age. Mills said MaineHealth’s decision to go outside those parameters “undermines the public’s confidence in our efforts.”
When asked by HuffPost, MaineHealth said vaccinating members of the Reliant Labor Consultants team was not a term of the contract between the two parties. A spokesperson declined to say how much the hospital system was paying the firm for its services.
On its website, Reliant Labor Consultants says it focuses on helping employers maintain “their direct relationships with their employees and avoid the many significant problems that arise when work groups are organized.” The firm appears to have made a specialty of union avoidance in the health care setting, saying its team includes former union officials and organizers as well as registered nurses and health care executives.
“We have seen the realities and know first-hand the impact unionization will have on your employees and your organization,” the firm says.
Many workers have become more interested in joining unions due to the trying conditions of the pandemic and the failure of many employers to keep them safe on the job. Health care unions, in particular, have been flexing their muscles and making more safety demands in hospitals.
Giles said nurses at Maine Medical Center share the same concerns as nurses elsewhere, like access to protective equipment and adequate staffing during the crisis. However, the union drive predated the pandemic, and grew out of broader concerns over how the hospital was being run.
“Vaccinating out-of-state contractors who came here to disrupt a union organizing effort was an insult to the hardworking nurses trying to assert their rights and to those who are waiting patiently for their turn.”
Registered nurses at Maine Medical Center filed a petition for a union election in January. The National Labor Relations Board has scheduled a mail-in election to begin in late March. The union, which is part of National Nurses United, needs to win a simple majority of votes cast in order to become the nurses’ representative and start bargaining a first contract.
Employers have to disclose to the Labor Department the fees they pay to such consultants in an effort to persuade workers on unionization. But the financial disclosures often become public well after an organizing drive or election has concluded.
“Hospitals talk to nurses about how expensive it would be to have a union, and how their costs would go up,” said Giles. “I would like to know how much they’re spending on these consultants.”