Taken from Politico
By Sam Sutton
September 29, 2020
Hackensack Meridian Health is fighting a National Labor Relations Board ruling granting Jersey Shore University Medical Center workers the ability to vote by mail to decide whether to name Health Professionals and Allied Employees as their collective bargaining representative.
The election pits Hackensack Meridian against its bête noire HPAE, an AFL-CIO affiliate that’s sparred with the health system in bitter contract negotiations at the Monmouth County hospital, as well as at Southern Ocean Medical Center and other facilities.
Ballots are scheduled to go out at the end of this week to roughly 1,200 workers at the Neptune hospital, including technicians, CNAs and support staff.
The NLRB typically prefers in-person union elections, rather than those conducted by mail. But given the risks posed by the coronavirus, potential “bottlenecks” in the voting process and employees who’ve been “scattered” by the pandemic — and who could be disenfranchised by an unwillingness to risk coronavirus exposure during off-hours — a vote-by-mail election is the only alternative, the NLRB ruled.
“The Board has consistently taken the position that the pandemic constitutes extraordinary circumstances,” wrote David Leach III, regional director for the regional NLRB, wrote in a Sept. 15 decision.
On Sept. 21, as Covid-19 hot spots began to crop up among younger people in Monmouth County, Jersey Shore University representatives filed an emergency motion to stay the election. The union filed its opposition to the health system’s motion on Sept. 25.
The NLRB’s decision “misconstrues or simply ignores record facts about JSUMC’s election plan, the threat currently presented by COVID-19 on JSUMC’s campus and the import of various executive orders issued by New Jersey Governor Philip D. Murphy,” wrote the health system’s representative, Christopher Murphy of Morgan, Lewis & Bockius, in the emergency motion.
Three days earlier, New Jersey Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli announced that clusters of new Covid-19 cases in Monmouth and Ocean counties were raising red flags for health officials. Monmouth County, which is the 11th largest county in the state by population, had recorded the second highest number of cases of any county in the state during the preceding two days.
New Jersey’s recent uptick in new Covid-19 cases has largely been associated with Ocean County — particularly Orthodox communities in Lakewood — though Murphy administration officials continue to name-check Monmouth County as an area of concern.
In August, fears of a resurgent pandemic prompted Murphy to direct elections officials to conduct the Nov. 3 general election mostly by mail, though residents can still appear at their polling place to submit their ballots or cast a provisional. The Legislature later passed a bill codifying those instructions.
The governor’s vote-by-mail directive notwithstanding, Jersey Shore University has “enhanced virus control protocols” in place, Murphy wrote. The case for in-person voting is further aided by the fact the hospital is located in “where infection rates have declined dramatically, and where JSUMC has committed to implementing all of the additional recommendations for a safe manual election.”
Under Hackensack Meridian’s plan, rather than voting by mail, polling of Jersey Shore University workers would occur in an “old ambulance bay” that’s contained by three walls — one of which has three windows — with an open bay door to assure circulation.
Plexiglass, disinfectant wipes and disposable pencils would be made available to prevent cross-contamination and temperature checks, already a requirement for employees to enter the grounds, will assure those who exhibiting symptoms wouldn’t be allowed inside.
“While the Employer’s proposed safeguards for a manual election are commendable, COVID-19 is already present both inside and outside the Employer’s facility,” Leach wrote. “Given the documented presence of the disease and the possibility of asymptomatic spread, the risk of spreading the disease to employees during the election, and to non-employee participants, is too great at this time.”
HPAE and Hackensack Meridian have squared off several times over the course of the pandemic.
The dismissal of a union nurse at Jersey Shore University, which HPAE alleges was because they took an off-day to represent a fellow union member in a disciplinary hearing involving PPE usage and Covid-19 preparedness, triggered a complaint to the NLRB. Hackensack Meridian, in an emailed statement at the time, claimed that charge was “FALSE”.
More recently, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration cited Hackensack Meridian for Covid-19-related workplace safety violations at a long-term care facility in North Bergen, allegations that were amplified by HPAE. The health system, which bills itself as the largest in the state, is “challenging several of the OSHA findings,” Daniel Varga, chief physician executive for Hackensack Meridian Health, said in a statement.
HPAE invoked the latter allegations in a statement calling on Hackensack Meridian to allow vote-by-mail.
“This is par for the course for Hackensack Meridian,” according to the statement. “How can Jersey Shore healthcare workers trust HMH to protect their health when it tells the NLRB that it could conduct a safe, in-person election during a global pandemic with more than 202,000 COVID-19 cases and more than 16,000 deaths from the virus?”
Hackensack Meridian did not respond to a request for comment.