If Your Organization Includes Represented Employees, Remember to Engage the Union
Employees, customers and partners will be interested in a company’s stance on employee vaccinations – and as you develop your communications plan, remember to engage the union as a key stakeholder if your organization has union-represented employees in its workforce. Existing union agreements may influence policy decisions, including limiting the ability to mandate vaccinations. Not to mention that when proactively engaged and consulted, unions could be an important voice encouraging employees to be vaccinated.
1. Consider relevant law and collective bargaining obligations when developing vaccination policies.
Employers with union-represented employees should consider collective bargaining obligations and relevant law when developing and communicating vaccination policies – such as National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) decisions in the United States. If employees are represented by a union, an employer unilaterally implementing a mandatory vaccination program could lead not only to union opposition, but possibly to an unfair labor practice charge before the NLRB, unless the current collective bargaining agreement and relevant NLRB decisions allow the employer to do so.
2. Consult with the union to gain its support.
For an employer with union-represented employees, surprising the union is rarely a good thing. Even if an employer believes that its collective bargaining agreement gives it the right to institute a vaccination program, consulting with the union before finalizing and communicating the approach could help to maximize buy-in. Securing legal guidance in advance of such outreach is strongly advised. Many unions favor early access to vaccines for their members, and if they are on the same page, the union could help build support for the company’s program and encourage participation.
3. Many unions are pro-vaccination.
A number of major unions – including the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW), and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters – have publicly pushed for access to vaccines for their members. The SEIU characterized vaccination as safe and effective in a Dec. 21 press release laying out seven principles for vaccine distribution: “Vaccines are a proven technology to prevent the spread of disease. The COVID vaccine is a critical tool to protect our families, ourselves and our communities as we fight to put an end to this deadly virus. We encourage SEIU members to take the vaccine.”
On its website, the UFCW urges members to “protect yourself with the COVID vaccine,” calling both available vaccines safe and effective.
In its release, the SEIU pushed for vaccinations to be free for employees, and for employees to be paid for time spent being vaccinated: “Vaccines must be provided free of charge, and workers should be provided with paid time off if the vaccination process requires them to miss work.”
4. But some unions have opposed making vaccinations mandatory.
Some unions, including the SEIU, have opposed mandatory vaccinations. The SEIU said in its Dec. 21 press release: “The best approach to encouraging universal vaccination is through education and outreach, not through making vaccination mandatory.” Still, many employers can make a strong case for requiring employee vaccinations if they make exceptions (for disabilities or sincerely held religious beliefs), and vaccinations are job-related and a business necessity, according to EEOC guidance provided in December. The more likely it is that non-vaccinated employees put customers, fellow employees or the general public at risk, the more compelling the case will be for a vaccination mandate.
5. Consider how your COVID-19 vaccine program may affect your different employee relationships.
Employers with no union-represented employees, and employers with a mix of represented and unrepresented employees, should thoughtfully consider how they implement and communicate a COVID-19 vaccine program across these different audiences. Helping to ensure that all employees feel they have a voice and are treated with respect in an environment free of favoritism and discrimination will help support good working relationships with unions where those exist … and reinforce direct relationships with employees where those exist. Communicating strategically across internal audiences can help to strengthen existing relationships while continuing to grow competitiveness.