NJ health care unions say yes to COVID vaccines, but call mandating them a step too far
Taken from NorthJersey.com
By Lindy Washburn
July 30, 2021
A growing number of New Jersey health care systems and long-term care companies have told their employees — more than 100,000 so far this week — to get COVID vaccines or risk losing their jobs. But labor unions that represent thousands of their workers oppose the mandates.
The union members have seen the deadly effects of COVID-19 up close, and many became infected themselves earlier in the pandemic. But compulsory vaccination is a step too far, union leaders say.
Under U.S. labor law, “we have a right to bargain over a new work rule,” said Debbie White, president of Health Professionals and Allied Employees, the state’s largest health care union. The union must also represent all its members — including those who do not want to get vaccinated.
While it opposes the mandate, however, HPAE and other unions encourage their members to get vaccinated. “We see the vaccine as the most effective protection against getting COVID,” White said.
It’s a dichotomy: labor and personal rights vs. worker protection. But labor law, at least, is clear.
Any new condition of employment — especially one in which the penalty is termination — must be negotiated at the bargaining table, said Stacey Lee, a health care lawyer and associate professor at Johns Hopkins University Carey Business School. It is “black letter law.”
Organized labor includes a cross section of Americans and attitudes toward vaccination, she noted, so there will be some who don’t want to get vaccinated. The unions “have a duty to represent all of them.”
This opposition to vaccine mandates may foreshadow the reaction to broader public-employee mandates, if they are issued by the president or governors. HPAE, with more than 12,000 members; 1199SEIU, which represents some 8,000 nursing home workers in New Jersey; and JNESO, a professional health workers union of 5,000, all oppose mandates.
“Mandating vaccination is not, nor will it ever be, the answer,” said George Gresham, president of 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East, the largest health care union in the United States, which has rallied against the mandate imposed by New York Presbyterian Hospital in New York City.
He commended New York Mayor Bill de Blasio for allowing unvaccinated city workers to be tested frequently, if they choose not to be vaccinated, a policy announced Monday.
On Thursday afternoon, President Joe Biden announced that federal workers must get vaccinated or observe strict precautions.
“Every federal government employee will be asked to attest to their vaccination status,” the White House COVID-19 Response Team said on Twitter. “Anyone who does not attest or is not vaccinated will be required to mask at all times, test one to two times per week, socially distance, and generally will not be allowed to travel for work.”
Steps are being taken to apply the same standards to federal contractors, the response team said, and the White House is “encouraging employers across the private sector to follow this strong model.”
Earlier this week, the Department of Veterans Affairs became the first federal agency to institute a vaccine policy. It requires people involved in direct patient care in the VA Health System to be fully vaccinated or subject to frequent testing.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has required the same for his state’s roughly 130,000 employees; workers at state hospitals in “patient-facing” roles will be required to get vaccinated, with no alternative.
So far, Gov. Phil Murphy has not indicated plans to do so for New Jersey state employees.