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Vaccines a complicated issue for unions and employers

On Behalf of | Jan 27, 2021 | New York Labor Law Blog, Union Representation |

Labor unions worked hard to get their essential worker members to the front of the line for vaccines. Now they may be defending members who refuse to take the vaccine mandated by the employers. Employers, particularly those in hospitality, education or work with the public, will likely want workers vaccinated to maintain a safe workspace and reliable and productive workforce. Nonetheless, employers and unions will probably need to work together for it to happen.

“If the employer wants to make that mandatory … they would have to negotiate that with us,” said Kim Cordova, vice president of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW). “They could not change a condition of employment. They could not make that mandatory in the middle of a contract unless the state or the government required it.”

How it could work

Regardless of where leadership stands regarding the vaccine, unilateral implementation of a mandatory vaccine under the current collective bargaining agreement would likely lead to an unfair labor practices lawsuit against the employer. There will probably need to be different rules for union members, regardless of whether the vaccine is deemed necessary for the job.

Growing support by members

As of the end of January 2021, a poll of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (the largest public-sector union) found that there is increased support for taking the vaccine:

  • 46% said they would immediately take the vaccine when offered (up 20% since October)
  • 32% were willing to wait for others to get it
  • 20% were unwilling to take it at any time (this number remains steady)

That last number likely indicates that there will be a substantial number of workers fighting the mandatory vaccination even if the number is cut in half in the upcoming months. There are also problems for employers if a worker is protected under the American Disabilities Act and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Recommended workarounds for the union include educating their members on the vaccine’s risks and benefits, which can increase the members’ comfort level. After this and bargaining for exceptions, unions may be able to sign off on mandatory vaccination. Employers may also try a financial incentive for getting the vaccination numbers up among the rank and file.

Cuomo asks unions to lead the way

Known for his outspokenness on everything regarding the fight against COVID, Governor Cuomo has already announced that he wants large unions to take matters into their own hands and vaccinate their members through their regular healthcare channels. The rationale is that it would put less burden on standard public resources that handle vaccine inoculation.

With President Biden’s stated goal of 100 million vaccinations in the first 100 days of his administration, how unions and employers handle this issue complicated issue will quickly become apparent in the days to come.