COVID-19 comes to the bargaining table

Unions, employers take on workplace changes in the face of fast-spreading illness

construction worker in safety googles covered in dirt and debris
Construction Worker' image by skeeze from Pixabay license free.

As the COVID-19 illness changes everything, Wisconsin unions and employers whose workers they represent have been making changes of their own — or trying to. 

The results are mixed. They reflect strained labor relations in some workplaces and a culture of collaboration in others.

“This stuff is unprecedented,” says Dave Branson, president of the Building Trades Council of South Central Wisconsin, representing construction workers in Dane County and surrounding communities. “We’re communicating with our employers so we can be sure that our members are safe and still get the job done.”

Early in March, the state construction industry associations and the Wisconsin Building Trades Council — the umbrella organization for unions representing carpenters, electricians, plumbers, bricklayers and other construction trades — issued a joint statement on job site work practice changes aimed at reducing the risk of spreading the coronavirus responsible for the COVID-19 illness.

The statement admonishes employers to make sure there are enough toilets and wash stations on construction sites and that they are cleaned and stocked regularly. It also spells out the responsibility of workers for cleaning any tools before handing them over to others on the job.

Local unions and employers are handling things less formally, says Branson, but talking through how to make things safer while the work continues. 

As long as companies observe social distancing rules that keep people 6 feet or farther apart, construction is among the industries allowed to continue operating under the Safer at Home order the state Department of Health Services (DHS) instituted Wednesday, March 25, under the direction of Gov. Tony Evers.

Construction projects may have an easier time than some other workplaces when it comes to  following the physical separation guidelines. 

“Construction sites are not densely populated,” says Branson. “You go out there and work essentially on your own for the most part; 6 feet of space between everybody is not really a big problem.”

Still, some adjustments are necessary. The statewide union-industry statement calls on employers to rethink meetings and breaks during the work day in order to avoid larger groups congregating. Some employers are trying staggered shifts so fewer workers overlap at any one time.

“We don’t want anybody to get sick,” says Branson. “And we don’t want anybody to get their spouse or kids sick, either.”

New contract

At GE Healthcare’s Madison factory (also known as GE-Datex-Ohmeda), the International Association of Machinists was preparing to open negotiations in April for a new three-year contract to replace the current one, which expires in June. The union represents more than 340 workers who build medical equipment.

That equipment includes ventilators, which have been in unprecedented demand to help patients with the COVID-19 illness. Anticipating a surge in demand for their products, the union approached the company on Monday, March 16, proposing an emergency one-year extension that preserved all current conditions. Union members ratified the new agreement three days later.

“This contract extension shows we as union members can do our part in helping with this pandemic,” said Machinists Local 1406 shop chair Sheila Jourdan in a statement issued by the union.

The United Food & Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 1473, represents about 5,000 grocery store employees and about 5,000 food processing workers in Wisconsin. At the union’s urging, some employers who have contracts with the union have agreed to $1 to $2 an hour in premium pay, although only temporarily, says UFCW service director Melanie Bartholf. 

“Most of them will end in early April,” Bartholf tells the Wisconsin Examiner. “We hope to negotiate to continue those premiums. We are urging our employers to provide premium pay for the duration of the crisis.”

Other UFCW employers are giving one-time bonuses from $150 to $500, she adds. “The majority of our grocery employers have not agreed to any form of paid leave for associates impacted by COVID-19, and many are saying they will provide what the state or federal government requires of them, but otherwise will not change their leave policies.”

Meanwhile, the union has reached out to the Evers administration to designate grocery workers as “first responders,” similar to health care workers — something that the states of Minnesota, Michigan and Vermont have already done. The classification would give them access to free childcare during the health emergency.

Conflicts surface

CUNA Mutual, an insurance, financial services and technology firm based in Madison, has asked all employees who can do so to work from home while measures to curb the spread of the virus are in effect, including employees represented by Office and Professional Employees International Union (OPEIU) Local 39. 

The union’s current contract with the company doesn’t expire until 2021, but the union approached management in March seeking a memorandum of understanding that would include additional sick leave related to COVID-19 illness. 

After the company presented a draft and the union countered with its own language, which besides extending sick leave requested a no-layoff pledge, the company rejected the union’s draft, according to Local 39 President Kathryn Bartlett-Mulvihill. Union members responded with a petition urging CUNA Mutual management to reconsider. 

“It is really about what if people get sick,” Bartlett-Mulvihill said.”We really want to have a better dialogue with the company about what that might look like.”

CUNA Mutual spokesman Philip Tschudy confirmed ongoing talks with the union. 

“We understand the COVID-19 virus poses significant risks and potential hardship to employees and their families,” he said, calling the company’s “top priorities” the health and safety of employees, partners and the community, along with continuing to serve customers.

“Unfortunately, at this time we have not yet been able to reach an agreement that allows the company to provide that additional leave,” Tsuchdy said. He declined comment on the petition except to say that the company had not seen it.

Both Tschudy and Bartlett-Mulvihill said the company and the union were continuing to discuss the matter. 

In Milwaukee, bus drivers for the Milwaukee County Transit System (MCTS) have been seeking changes to working conditions that they feel are necessary to ensure safety from passengers who are sick. 

James Macon, president of Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 998, says drivers aren’t satisfied that current shielding around the driver’s seat is adequate protection from a stray sneeze or cough.

Also to protect drivers from potentially infected riders, beginning Saturday, March 28, the transit system has suspended fare collection and told riders to board and leave the bus from the rear door. (An exception is made for riders with disabilities who need assistance in boarding.) 

Macon said the union had been seeking the changes, but that they were too slow in coming.

Asked about Macon’s comments, an MCTS spokeswoman issued a statement that the bus system “is working hard to get riders to work, pharmacies, grocery shopping and doctor’s appointments during the pandemic,” and that it “has taken unprecedented steps to minimize the spread of COVID-19 among its customers and protect operators including extra daily cleaning, reduced service levels and most recently, rear door boarding and suspending fare collection.” 

The statement concludes: “MCTS is asking the public to limit their trips to destinations that are absolutely essential, and to not ride the bus if they are experiencing coronavirus symptoms”

Better relations

In other industries, unions and employers have managed to work more amicably around the COVID-19 challenges.

Tom Niebuhr is a union representative for the Sheet Metal-Air-Rail-Transportation (SMART) union local 565 representing employees at about a dozen manufacturers in Madison, Wausau and surrounding areas. Union members build refrigerators and freezers, loudspeaker components, and a variety of other products.

As concerns rose about the new virus, Niebuhr and the other SMART union reps contacted those employers to address questions about job safety and sick days in a time of pandemic.

At many employers, employees who have paid sick leave also operate under attendance policies that penalize employees who miss work without giving advance notice, in order to discourage malingering. Workers who accumulate too many “occurrences” under such policies can face discipline, including being fired.

“One of the questions we asked of the companies was, how can we deter somebody from coming to work when they potentially could be sick” — and risk infecting others — “because people don’t want to get an ‘occurrence’,” says Niebuhr.

That concern is even greater because the continuing shortage of tests to confirm COVID-19 infection has led the state to reserve testing for only the sickest people. Yet even someone with mild symptoms, or none at all, can transmit the illness.

“The businesses that we work out of and represent have been very conscientious and they’ve worked with us,” Niebuhr tells the Wisconsin Examiner. “Two shops that I represent both have over 500 people on the floor. You bring [the virus] in there, and what happens if the entire work force were to become exposed? They recognize the potential behind that.”

He expects more discussions with employers going forward — for instance, on how to ensure social distancing on a large factory floor with hundreds of workers.

In the meantime, though, with a buildup of inventory and the economic slowdown triggered by the anti-virus measures, two appliance factories laid off workers represented by the union — some temporarily, and some indefinitely. Laid-off workers will be able to collect unemployment, but Niebuhr and his fellow union reps have been trying to connect those who want to keep working with other employers who have openings.

“We are just actively trying to support them to get them what they need,” Niebuhr says. “The day that the news hit about the layoffs, I got an email from a buddy of mine on the bargaining committee at GE Healthcare. He told me about the early contract extension and said, ‘Got layoffs? Send them our way.’”