Maine’s largest health network is being condemned this week by organized labor leaders, a local editorial board, and elected officials after it vaccinated union-busters who traveled from Florida and New York to the Pine Tree state to undermine a unionization effort at a Portland hospital while the state’s frontline workers and eligible residents in high-risk groups were forced to wait.
“The choice to vaccinate these individuals over vulnerable Mainers signals a huge lapse in judgment and priorities.”
—Assistant state Senate Majority Leader Mattie Daughtry
“Every out-of-state consultant and lawyer that MaineHealth flew in as part of their intimidation campaign got the vaccine instead of someone’s grandparent or loved one,” Maine Senate President Troy Jackson, a Democrat from Allagash, said in a statement Tuesday.
“It’s concerning,” Jackson added, “that MaineHealth would put their own anti-union agenda, and their own bottom line, ahead of the health and well-being of Maine people. At a time when Maine has only a limited supply of the Covid-19 vaccine and is still grappling with a public health crisis, this seems particularly cruel.”
Portland Press Herald columnist Bill Nemitz on Sunday detailed how MaineHealth offered vaccines to all 22,000 of its employees, including those “who perform billing, scheduling, marketing, or other administrative tasks that involve no contact whatsoever with patients or frontline medical staff.”
Even though inoculating remote staff violated Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention rules, MaineHealth CEO Bill Caron on Sunday defended the hospital’s decision to do so, claiming in a letter to the network’s board of trustees that he was “protecting the valuable resource of healthcare infrastructure which has been entrusted to us.”
Much harder to justify, however, was Caron’s decision to vaccinate employees from two anti-union consulting firms who were brought in from out of state to crush a unionizing drive led by nurses at Maine Medical Center, MaineHealth’s flagship hospital in Portland. Not that he didn’t try to apologize.
In a statement, MaineHealth characterized the union-busters as a “small number of individuals from out of state who were brought into Maine Medical Center to provide support to nurses and managers in answering questions about the impact of joining a union.”
National Nurses United and the Maine State Nurses Association filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board on January 12 to represent the 1,600 full-time, regular part-time, and per diem nurses at Maine Medical Center.
“Within a few weeks, Maine Med hired Florida-based Reliant Labor Consultants to provide mandatory ‘training’ to the nurses ‘to help them decide if they want a union to speak for them,'” Nemitz wrote. “Reliant Labor Consultants lists among its services ‘avoiding a union’ and ‘fighting a union.'”
According to Nemitz: “Reliant Labor Consultants representatives, along with those from a New York City law firm that represents employers in labor organizing efforts, received Covid-19 vaccinations while in Maine. This despite a crystal-clear statement on the Maine CDC’s website that Maine vaccines are for Maine residents only.”
In response to Nemitz’s column, MaineHealth said that “we understand that non-Maine residents are not eligible for any vaccine and acknowledge that we erred in vaccinating those individuals.”
Maine Gov. Janet Mills (D) on Tuesday called MaineHealth’s decision to inoculate the anti-union consultants who traveled from Florida and New York an “inexcusable act.”
“Vaccinating out-of-state contractors who came here to disrupt a union organizing effort,” Mills said in a statement, “was an insult to the hardworking nurses trying to assert their rights and to those who are waiting patiently for their turn—the 80-year-old grandmother who hasn’t seen her family in months, the man being treated for cancer, the teacher wanting to return to the classroom, the grocery clerks and delivery drivers who are exposed to the public and working to put food on the table.”
In an interview with HuffPost, Cookie Giles, president of the Maine State Nurses Association, which is leading the union drive at Maine Medical Center, denounced Caron’s decision to vaccinate out-of-state union-busters as well as his decision to prioritize MaineHealth’s non-patient-facing staff members ahead of vulnerable Mainers.
“They’re not frontline people. They should not have been the priority to get those vaccinations,” said Giles, a registered nurse who works at another facility. “I have friends of mine in their 70s who get up at 6 o’clock every morning to go online and try to get their [vaccination] appointments.”
Assistant Senate Majority Leader Mattie Daughtry, a Democrat from Brunswick, said in a statement that “MaineHealth is comfortable calling nurses heroes but draws the line at treating them like heroes or respecting their desire to form a union.”
Senate Majority Leader Eloise Vitelli, a Democrat from Arrowsic, acknowledged the struggle of Maine Medical Center’s nurses, who have “gone into work to care for their patients in the toughest of circumstances,” for “fair wages and decent benefits.”
“I’m disappointed,” Vitelli added, “that MaineHealth would see the unionization as a greater threat to their institution than the deadly Covid-19 virus.”
As journalist Dave Jamieson wrote for HuffPost on Wednesday:
It’s common practice for employers facing a union drive to bring in consultants who specialize in “union avoidance.” Such consultants typically hold group meetings with employees to discourage them from voting in favor of the union in an election. Such influence is legal so long as managers and consultants don’t step over certain lines.
It makes sense that MaineHealth would want anyone taking part in a meeting with its nurses to be vaccinated, given the safety implications for frontline staff and patients. But vaccines are still in limited supply, and union-busting does not appear to be an essential service under the government’s critical infrastructure guidelines.
Vitelli described the latest move by MaineHealth as “unconscionable,” and Daughtry called it “appalling and an affront to Mainers who are patiently waiting their turn to receive the Covid-19 vaccine.”
“Almost a year into this pandemic, Maine’s frontline healthcare workers haven’t had a chance to catch their breath,” Daughtry continued. “They’ve dealt with shortages of personal protective equipment, staffing issues as their colleagues have come down with the virus, and extraordinary loss. It’s why we’re seeing healthcare workers across the country band together to form unions to protect themselves and improve patient care.”
“The fact that MaineHealth views calls to improve patient care and employee safety as a serious threat is concerning,” Daughtry added. “The choice to vaccinate these individuals over vulnerable Mainers signals a huge lapse in judgment and priorities.”
The Press Herald‘s editorial board also slammed MaineHealth for putting “its low-risk employees ahead of high-risk workers elsewhere.”
“Even if only a small number of people were protected out of turn,” the board wrote, “the organization’s decisions could have a serious impact on public confidence in the whole vaccination program.”
“If we want people to wait patiently for their turn, we need them to believe that the vaccine distribution system is both competent and fair,” the board added. “Once the public loses faith in the process, more people will try to jump the line, convinced that Covid vaccines are being doled out through favors to those lucky enough to know somebody who knows somebody.”