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Nurse Union Challenges Hospital Over COVID-19 Safety Risks

Two people arguing at table

In the past few months, a day as rarely passed when an article, news briefing or blog has not focused on safety issues for healthcare workers amid the COVID-19 pandemic. In the following case, the New York State Nurses Association sought to rectify safety concerns for its nurse union members who were employed at a private hospital.

The nurse union did not believe the hospital was doing enough to protect its nurse members. In seeking emergency relief in the case of the New York State Nurses Association vs. Montefiore Medical Center, NYSNA asked the U.S. District Court to enter an injunction (a ruling) requiring the hospital to take specific measures to mitigate the risk that its members would contact COVID-19.

What the nurse union wanted

The union had specific demands in this case. It wanted the hospital to:

  • Increase the availability of PPE, including protective respirators and gowns.
  • Provide a "proper space to don and doff such items (PPE) so that disease-free areas in the hospital do not become contaminated."
  • Make coronavirus testing available on demand.
  • Take other steps "to preserve employees' physical and emotional health, including respecting their requests for statutorily-protected leave or accommodations."
The hospital's position was that it was doing everything governmental agencies had recommended -- and more.

The hospital also believed if the union's requests were granted by the court, it would "paralyze" the hospital's ability to provide patient care because of the "challenging circumstances" presented by the pandemic. The court acknowledged its sympathy to both parties. Stating that the parties in the case were far more knowledgeable at determining a resolution of the issues than it was, the court ordered them to participate in mediation in an attempt to resolve the case amicably. The court delayed its ruling to allow the mediation to be completed. Unfortunately, they did not reach an agreement during mediation, and the court proceeded to issue its ruling.

What the court ruled

The court began its opinion with the fact that its charge was not to ultimately resolve the dispute because a resolution lies with the parties' collective bargaining agreement (CBA). The CBA stated this dispute was subject to arbitration unless "limited circumstances" exist. The nurse union had started that process, arguing it was only asking for a "status quo" injunction because of the hospital's conduct, which adversely affected the arbitration process.

The hospital argued the injunction being sought was not a "status quo" injunction. Rather, the union sought to force "new and additional obligations" on the hospital that would "profoundly alter the status quo and grant (NYSNA) the ultimate relief it requests in the grievance."

The hospital also asked the court to dismiss the case. The court carefully evaluated applicable case law and held that it lacked subject matter jurisdiction (no power over the type of the case and the relief sought) to grant NYSNA's injunction. The union's case was declared moot (not significant) and the hospital's motion to dismiss granted. The court concluded its opinion with a "plea to both sides to continue their efforts in good faith to reach an amicable resolution of their dispute." It also stated both parties raised valid concerns, and it was critical that they be swiftly addressed, as "lives may hang in the balance, and the NYSNA nurses deserve as much."

National Labor Relations Act and CBAs

This case illuminates some of the aspects of the National Labor Relations Act. Briefly, the NLRA identifies the respective rights and responsibilities of employers, employees and unions. It also governs the resulting Collective Bargaining Agreement that occurs once a union is elected to represent nurses in their relationship with non-governmental employers. A CBA is a binding, written contract between an employer and a union that represents the employees. It is the result of a process of negotiation and governs the employer-employee relationship in terms of wages, hours and terms and conditions of employment. Once the parties agree to its terms, the CBA must be adhered to. In this case, the CBA apparently included specific requirements to follow, which was to submit the dispute to arbitration in the event of a disagreement between the employer and the union regarding safety issues in the workplace. Although the CBA could not have specifically encompassed safety issues in light of COVID-19, the parameters of the CBA clearly required any such issue be subject to arbitration.

Despite the union's intentions to protect its members, it was required to adhere to the CBA.

The ability to select another forum in which to resolve this dispute simply did not exist. The specifics of the outcome of the dispute's return to arbitration is not known. If you are a nurse union member, you know what a CBA looks like. For nurses who are not union members, you can review one and its accompanying memorandums here.

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