Jottings By An Employer's Lawyer

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Hospital Staffing - Grievance by Grievance

Is the upshot of the 1st Circuit's decision in Massachusetts Nurses Association v. North Adams Regional Hospital (1st Cir. 10/26/06). Having obtained a collective bargaining agreement that contained a provision dealing with staffing, the Union filed grievances that it had been violated on 9 shifts on one floor. Although the violations occurred in 2002, the decision of the arbitrator was not handed down until February, 2005. Finding the hospital in violation, he ordered that hospital cease and desist from future violations of the standard as well as pay additional wages to the nurses who actually worked the shifts, as well as paying the union what an extra nurse on the shifts in question would have earned.

In the spring of 2005, nurses reported additional violations, although only one occurred on the same floor as the previous grievances. Bypassing the grievance procedure, the Union filed a § 301 action in federal court seeking to apply the prior award to the new violations. Unfortunately, it ran into 1st Circuit precedent based on the traditional reluctance of courts to interfere with grievance proceedings. Finding the union could not meet the high standard --"no colorable basis for denying the applicability of the existing award to a dispute at hand" --the Court held the passage of time alone would be enough to give a colorable basis that the award should not be applied.

This has to be one of the more arcane points of labor law, which severely limits the group which will be interested. But what is of much more general significance is the term of the CBA, that the hospital is contractually obligated to -- "only keep and admit the number of patients that registered nurses can safely care for" and to "take measures such as adding nurses [and] stopping admissions . . . to ensure that this occurs." In a world where the future of healthcare is on everyone's mind, the fact that a union has gained that power is significant.

No doubt there will be different viewpoints as to the merits of such power -- but the fact that it is potentially significant, seems hard to argue with.


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