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A group of federal lawmakers has resurrected legislation that could result in major labor law changes that potentially would exacerbate workforce challenges already facing the senior living industry, industry experts say.

The Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act was reintroduced Thursday by Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Chair Patty Murray (D-WA), Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and House Committee on Education and Labor Chairman Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA). The bill, which passed the House last February but did not advance to the Senate, has 194 co-sponsors. It would make it easier for workers to unionize and more difficult for operators to prevent it from happening, experts say.

Paul Williams, Argentum’s vice president of government relations, told McKnight’s Senior Living that the PRO Act contains several provisions that are unfriendly to workers as well as “a lot of very harmful provisions for employers.”

According to Argentum, the act effectively would repeal right-to-work provisions used in 27 states, strip workers of essential rights and violate employees’ rights to privacy.

“We are not opposed to unions, but what this act would do is it really substantially tips in favor of unions to be able to unionize, and we think at the expense of workers’ rights and employers’ rights,” Williams said.

The PRO Act, Williams said, would “exacerbate, from a financial standpoint, the losses we’ve already incurred” in the senior living industry, including expenses related to personal protective equipment, hero pay, extra staffing and infection prevention and control. 

“What we’re concerned about are the rights employees deserve, as well as employers,” Williams said. 

American Seniors Housing Association President David Schless said that ASHA is working with the Coalition for Democratic Workforce, a broad-based coalition of organizations representing employers and employees in various industries “concerned with a long-standing effort by some in the labor movement to make radical changes to the National Labor Relations Act without regard to the severely negative impact they would have on employees, employers and the economy.”

“ASHA is concerned over many of the provisions in the PRO Act, which is designed to give more power to unions and union organizing,” Schless told McKnight’s Senior Living, adding that ASHA will support CDW’s efforts to educate lawmakers and the public about the “detrimental consequences of this legislation.”

Basic rights

The bill, according to sponsoring lawmakers, protects the basic right to join a union by:

  • Introducing enforceable penalties for companies and executives who violate workers’ rights;
  • Expanding workers’ collective bargaining rights and closing loopholes that corporations use to exploit workers; and
  • Strengthening workers’ access to fair union elections, and requiring corporations to respect the results.

Scott said that the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated an urgent need for Congress to protect and strengthen workers’ rights.

“The Protecting the Right to Organize Act is a major step toward ensuring that workers can exercise their basic right to form a union and collectively bargain for higher pay, safer working conditions and decent benefits — including paid leave, quality healthcare and a secure retirement,” he said in a statement.

Troubling provisions

Senior living provider groups see it differently.

Among the provisions concerning senior living operators is the so-called “ambush election” provision, which shortens the election period once a petition is filed to as little as 10 to 14 days. Williams said the provision gives employers very little time to comply with National Labor Relations Act requirements, and it gives employees little time to learn what’s in the petition.

Another “very troubling provision,” Williams said, is the ability, under certain circumstances, to allow unions to use authorization cards in lieu of federally supervised elections for unionization.

“We fully support that a worker reserves the right to be able to decide whether to belong to a union or not by secret ballot,” he said, adding, however, that the provision presents the potential to create an environment in which union organizers will pressure workers into signing authorization cards.

The other part of this provision, Williams said, would require employers to release some employee contact information to union organizers. That release, he said, could mean that employees are subjected to harassment from union organizers.

“We want to avoid a situation where we’re invading employee privacy,” Williams said.

Another concerning provision is the “persuader rule,” which Williams said forces employers to disclose information regarding legal firms representing companies during the unionization process. He said the issue was struck down by the court in 2016 for going too far in violating attorney-client privilege and was revoked by the Labor Department 2018.

The Pro Act also would impose binding arbitration if unions and employers don’t reach a contract agreement within 120 days. The danger in that imposition, Williams said, is having an arbitrator who understands the legalities but doesn’t know much about the senior living industry.

“A lot of members on Capitol Hill and in state government don’t know the difference between senior living and skilled nursing,” Williams said. “An arbitrator has the ability to mandate things like wages and work rules that could, frankly, lead to not only substantial losses for the business, but could lead to some going out of business.”

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