John O'Connor
John O’Connor

The biggest labor problem in senior living is all too obvious: there simply are not enough workers.

The arguably second biggest labor problem is a bit more subtle: more workers soon may want to unionize.

Operators tend to have differing opinions on many issues. One of few areas where there is universal agreement is that unions are bad. Or at least, bad from a management perspective.

It’s not hard to see why: union shops tend to be far more successful when it comes to commanding higher pay and other perks. That’s good for employees but can make the challenge of running a community that much more difficult.

And from the looks of things, more unionization efforts might be on the way. The National Labor Relations Board just released a report that shows that union representation petitions are on the rise. By the way, so are charges of unfair labor practices.

In all, nearly 11,000 (10,792) unfair labor practice and union representation cases were filed with the National Labor Relations Board’s 48 field offices across the country during the first half of fiscal year 2023, which ended March 31. That’s a 14% increase compared with a year earlier.

Why does this matter? Because happy workers are far less likely to pursue collective bargaining arrangements. Do these numbers point to happy workers?

According to the Society for Human Resource Management, employees join unions when they feel they are being mistreated and unionization can help.

So what is an operator who wants to discourage unionization to do? The SHRM recommends four helpful strategies:

  • Fair and consistent policies and practices.
  • Open door management policies.
  • Competitive pay and benefits.
  • Employee trust and recognition.

“A workplace that fosters good relationships between management and employees and addresses employee concerns is much less likely to force employees to union representation for assistance,” the SHRM notes.

As for what to do if/when the union shows up at your community, SHRM recommends that you communicate with your employees. Specifically, be sure they know your preference is to remain union-free — and why. The acronym TIPS can help remind employers not to:

  • Threaten—never threaten to retaliate against employees by terminating their employment or reducing their pay or benefits.
  • Interrogate—do not interrogate employees about their activities or activities of co-workers.
  • Promise—do not promise anything to employees, such as promotions or benefits, in exchange for not supporting the union.
  • Surveillance/Spying—never spy on union activities. Employees have the right to meet with the union representatives and “hear them out” without management interference.

Frankly, the best way to keep a union out of your building is to make them moot. You can do that by providing a workplace that focuses on good employee relations while delivering fair and consistent policies.

Conversely, you can opt to take your chances and hope for the best. But all things considered, I’m not sure that this is the best time for Plan B.

John O’Connor is editorial director for McKnight’s Senior Living and its sister media brands, McKnight’s Long-Term Care News, which focuses on skilled nursing, and McKnight’s Home Care. Read more of his columns here.

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