The National Labor Relations Board (the “Board”) recently filed its fourth complaint (since March 2011) against Care Realty and Healthbridge Management, the owner and operator of several Connecticut nursing homes.  The Board’s three prior complaints against Care Realty had included allegations of unilateral changes to work hours, benefit eligibility requirements, holiday and vacation benefits, subcontracting of employees, and allegedly unlawful solicitation policies.  The Board’s latest complaint, filed on February 29, 2012, alleges that the nursing home violated the National Labor Relations Act when it: (1) engaged in bargaining proposals that the Board views as predictably unacceptable to the union; (2) refused to engage in reasoned discussion of its proposals with the union; (3) threatened to lock out bargaining unit employees; and (4) unlawfully locked out unionized employees.

These complaints, all filed within the span of one year, highlight the Board’s new, and aggressive, stance against healthcare employers.  Indeed, through its decision- and rule-making powers, the Board has drastically altered the playing field in favor of unions within the past year alone.  For example, recent Board actions will shorten the timeframe for elections.  Additionally, the Board has liberalized the definition of an appropriate bargaining unit, which will significantly facilitate union organizing capabilities and limit an employer’s ability to challenge the union’s proposed bargaining unit.  In fact, healthcare unions will now be able to “cherry pick” disgruntled employees to organize, rather than having to win an election from a broad cross-section of employees.  Moreover, on April 30, 2012, all employers will be required to post a notice informing employees of their right to join unions.  The Board is also considering new solicitation rules that will permit union organizers greater access to employers’ private property.

Healthcare industry employers should take heed of these recent developments and consider implementing the following important changes to avoid union organizing campaigns and/or unfair labor practice charges:

  •  Train managers to recognize the signs of union organizing, to understand the “do’s and don’t’s” of communicating with employees about unions, and to be aware that their actions could potentially result in an unfair labor practice charge.
  • Review and revise policies on solicitation and communications.
  • Ensure that hiring processes are designed to avoid unwittingly hiring union salts.
  • Develop a comprehensive labor strategy to enable swift and effective reactions to an organizing drive or a charge.