PROVIDENCE — More and more employers in Rhode Island are rolling out requirements that their workers get vaccinated against COVID-19 or else face regular testing.
But some labor unions are raising concerns about those requirements, saying management can’t impose them unilaterally and must negotiate with them first.
Union opposition to management’s vaccine rules ranges from skepticism about the vaccines themselves, as the union representing Providence police officers recently aired, to carefully couched statements from Rhode Island health care worker unions who say everyone should get vaccinated — while questioning whether management can make them do it without heading to the bargaining table.
“Many nurses and healthcare professionals may have health, religious or other reasons why they can’t or won’t get the vaccine, and we want to ensure that they’re protected and don’t lose their jobs — especially in light of the ongoing nursing shortage,” Lynn Blais, president of United Nurses and Allied Professionals, said in an emailed statement. “We also want to ensure that members who do get the vaccine are afforded the proper protections in the case that they experience side effects and may have to take time off.”
Blais reiterated, though, that the union — which represents thousands of workers in public and private institutions around the region — is urging all of its members to get the vaccine, which she noted is “proven to be safe and effective, and is our best shot to end this pandemic.”
The complex vaccine mandate picture seems to change by the day. It involves public and private employers and a patchwork of new state regulations, along with bedrock labor law and, of course, politics.
The state has imposed a requirement that health care workers in state-licensed facilities, both public and private, be vaccinated by Oct. 1. Until then, unvaccinated workers will have to be tested twice weekly. Governor Daniel McKee’s administration on Tuesday put out regulations with significant teeth to that rule: If a health care worker isn’t vaccinated as of Oct. 1, they won’t be allowed in the building. The Department of Health regulation also applies to state-licensed health care providers even outside the context of a state-licensed health care facility.
In many cases, there are ways around the requirement, including getting regularly tested. There are also exemptions for medical reasons. Some of it may have to be hashed out in court. Some Rhode Island union leaders say they’re not afraid of taking legal action if management refuses to negotiate over the vaccine rules and disciplines workers for failing to follow them.
“If there are things we can do legally about it, we will,” Michael Imondi, the president of the union representing Providence police officers, said in the wake of Mayor Jorge Elorza’s announcement that city employees would need to be vaccinated by Oct. 1 or face weekly testing.
Employers in non-union shops could impose vaccine requirements unilaterally, said Roger Achille, a labor attorney and professor at Johnson & Wales University.
Things are different in union settings, where management and employees work under collective bargaining agreements. In those cases, Achille said, employers would have to negotiate with workers, even if there was a requirement under state or local regulation that they get vaccinated — at least over the impact if an employee fails to comply with those regulations.
In other words, a unionized hospital could still prevent a non-compliant unvaccinated medical worker from being in their building after Oct. 1, if that’s what’s in the state regulations. But they’d have to negotiate with the union over what sort of discipline that person might face, what sort of time off they might be able to get to receive the shot, and what other work-related consequences are available.
That’s because discipline often creates an obligation to negotiate, Achille said.
Management, though, may argue their existing union contracts already include the ability to discipline their workers, and that they don’t need to negotiate again just for a specific new rule — especially one the state is telling them they have to follow.
Lifespan, the state’s largest employer and biggest hospital system, said in a statement it would follow the Department of Health’s requirement that its workers be vaccinated by Oct. 1.
“If there are still employees without an approved exemption who choose not to be vaccinated, with full awareness that vaccination is a condition of employment, we will follow our progressive discipline process up to and including termination of employment,” spokeswoman Kathleen Hart said in an email.
She added in another email: “Lifespan and its employees are subject to RIDOH immunization requirements for health care workers, and we do have the ability to enforce universal immunization requirements for employees to comply with the Governor’s emergency mandate, through our current negotiated contracts.”
Lifespan had originally imposed its own vaccine requirement for all its employees, which would have required them to show proof of immunization by Oct. 31. But that requirement is now Oct. 1, in line with the state’s mandate, Hart said.
All of this is taking place in a state where unions have significant political sway — and one where COVID-19 is on the rise. There are nearly 200,000 eligible Rhode Islanders who are not yet vaccinated.
“Our union strongly supports all healthcare workers receiving the COVID-19 vaccine to maximize patient and staff safety, especially in light of the new dangerous Delta variant,” said Patrick J. Quinn, executive vice president of SEIU 1199 New England. “At the same time, we understand there are legitimate medical and religious exemptions that we will work through with the state and employers while we continue to advocate for our members to receive paid time off if they develop symptoms in response to the vaccine.”
Few unions have more at stake than Council 94, which represents a range of employees affected by the emerging vaccine mandates.
Council 94 represents some workers in Providence, which recently announced its own get-vaccinated-or-get-tested rules. It represents some workers in the office of General Treasurer Seth Magaziner, who announced his own vaccine mandate last week. (In both cases, employees who refuse to be vaccinated will have to undergo regular testing.) Council 94′s employees work in state-run health care facilities, like the Veterans Home, and in private ones, too.
J. Michael Downey, the president of Council 94, said vaccine rules should be negotiated.
“We’re a union,” Downey said. “We do contract negotiations. We’d expect to have something negotiated, or we’d have no alternative but file grievances or court action.”
But, Downey added: “We’re not going to be unreasonable.”
Some of the things they might ask for in negotiations: paid time off to get a COVID-19 vaccine and time off for any side effects, or if they get infected, without having to use their sick time. Reasonable medical or religious exemptions. A way for people to refuse the vaccine if they undergo regular COVID-19 testing instead (and some way to actually test them). All of that should happen at the bargaining table, Downey said.
“You can’t skip it just for health,” Downey said.
Downey was also frustrated by McKee’s decision to impose a mask mandate on state buildings last week, which the union didn’t hear about until after it was announced. That’s not something they’ll file grievances over, but it did underscore the feeling that this was all just political football, and they were the ones getting kicked around, Downey said. McKee, Magaziner, Elorza, and Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea may all be facing off in the Democratic gubernatorial primary next year, and they are all grappling with rules that affect union members.
“If you’re looking for my safety, make sure it’s for my safety,” Downey said, “not for votes.”
Brian Amaral can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @bamaral44.