Flu Shots a Sticking Point for Minn. Nurses, Steelworkers

From labor disputes cases to labor and employment publications, for your research, you’ll find solutions on Bloomberg Law®. Protect your clients by developing strategies based on Litigation...

By Jaclyn Diaz

Nurses in Minnesota are protesting a mandatory flu immunization policy at Essentia Health.

The health system had previous policies related to flu immunization, but this is the first time it’s mandatory for staff, volunteers, and others working in the hospital to get the vaccine. Workers with health or religious exemptions are excluded.

Nonexempt employees who don’t get the flu shot by Nov. 20 can face termination, the hospital told Bloomberg Law Nov. 9.

The Minnesota Nurses Association filed an unfair labor practice charge against Essentia Nov. 2, arguing that the employer changed the employment contract for the union nurses without bargaining.

The union joins the United Steelworkers and United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1189, which have filed grievances over the Essentia policy.

Nurses Oppose Unapproved Changes

Nurses aren’t against the flu shot but are opposed to the hospital skirting both the union and the collective bargaining agreement that lays out employment policies, Steve Strand, a negotiator with MNA, told Bloomberg Law.

Essentia and MNA have held one meeting to address the union’s problems with the policy. The Nov. 7 meeting resolved nothing, union representatives said.

“We were willing to work with them to provide incentives” to increase voluntary participation in vaccination, Strand said. “At the end of the day they were standing their ground.”

The union and Essentia will meet again Nov. 13 over the policy. Close to 2,000 nurses are impacted by this policy, Strand said.

Other Unions Take Issue With Policy

Once Essentia instituted the new flu shot rule, unions were up in arms.

UFCW Local 1189 in Minnesota filed a grievance similar to MNA’s against Essentia on Nov. 2.

The United Steelworkers filed a lawsuit against Essentia Oct. 20. The union wants a federal judge to bar the Minnesota-based health system from acting on the threat to fire workers who decline flu shots, until the dispute can be arbitrated.

A judge’s decision on this case is still pending, Justin Cummins, an attorney for the Steelworkers in this case, told Bloomberg Law.

Essentia wouldn’t comment specifically on ongoing legal proceedings or issues related to collective bargaining. But representatives for the health system said the flu shot policy was enacted out of concern for the health of patients and the community.

The MNA is watching the Steelworkers case closely but doesn’t have any immediate plans to join in the lawsuit, Strand said.

Protecting Patients the Goal, Essentia Says

Old flu vaccination policies only required employees to respond to a survey about whether they intended to get the flu shot, Dr. Rajesh Prabhu, the chief of patient quality and safety at Essentia, told Bloomberg Law.

Employment wasn’t previously contingent on receiving the shot, but voluntary participation resulted in only about 70 percent of the employees being immunized. The hospital wants to see 90-plus percent of its workers vaccinated, Prabhu said.

Essentia wanted to take this step to ensure that patients and the surrounding community are safe, he said. The hospital has found that some patients treated at Essentia contracted the flu while being treated for other illnesses.

The policy also follows the industry standard at other hospitals and organizations across the country, he said.

“There is nothing unique about the flu vaccine,” Prabhu said. The hospital requires staff to receive other shots like hepatitis B, tetanus, measles, mumps, rubella, and chicken pox before working at the hospital.

Strand said the union will continue to sit down with Essentia with the goal of reaching a policy that could provide an increased rate of staff voluntarily getting a vaccine.

To contact the reporter on this story: Jaclyn Diaz in Washington at jDiaz@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Peggy Aulino at maulino@bna.com

Copyright © 2017 The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Request Labor & Employment on Bloomberg Law