Court Upholds NLRB Certification of CNAs As Bargaining Union Based On NLRB Modified Community Of Interest Test

Hospitals, skilled nursing and other health care organizations facing or concerned about union organizing or their nursing  or other staffs employees should consider an apparent change in National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) certification policy upheld when the  Sixth Circuit ruling upheld the NLRB’s certification of a bargaining unit consisting exclusively of certified nursing assistants (CNAs) at Specialty Healthcare and Rehabilitation of Mobile (Specialty) nursing home and enforced the Board’s order finding that Specialty’s refusal to bargain with the certified unit violated Section 8(a)(5) and (1) of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA).

Specialty Healthcare and Rehabilitation of Mobile, Board Case No. 15-CA-68248 (reported at 357 NLRB No. 174) (6th Cir. decided August 15, 2013 under the name Kindred Nursing Centers East, LLC f/k/a Specialty Healthcare and Rehabilitation of Mobile v. NLRB), arose after the union had petitioned to represent a unit of 53 full-time and part-time CNAs, Specialty claimed that the smallest appropriate unit must include 86 other service and maintenance employees.  The NLRB Regional Director found the unit appropriate and conducted the election, which the union won.  The NLRB granted review, asked the parties and public for their views on eight questions on community of interest unit determinations in the non-acute care healthcare industry, and ultimately issued a decision upholding the unit determination and the union’s election victory.

In its decision, the Board overruled Park Manor Care Center, 305 NLRB 872 (1991), which applied a “pragmatic or empirical community of interests approach” to determining unit appropriateness in nursing homes.  Instead, the Board ruled that it would apply the traditional test to evaluate appropriateness, which examines whether a proposed unit is readily identifiable and shares a community of interest distinct from other employees.  Then, the Board explained, if “a party contends that a petitioned-for unit containing employees readily identifiable as a group who share a community of interest is nevertheless inappropriate because it does not contain additional employees, the burden is on the party so contending to show that the excluded employees share an overwhelming community of interest with the included employees.”  Because the CNA-only unit was readily identifiable and shared a distinct community of interest, and because Specialty failed to show that the excluded service and maintenance employees shared an overwhelming community of interest with the CNAs, the Board certified the unit and the union’s victory.  Specialty refused to bargain, and this technical NLRA Section 8(a)(5) proceeding followed.

The Sixth Circuit affirmed the Board’s order and its clarification of the community-of-interest test.  First, rejecting Specialty’s argument that the Board did not merely embrace the traditional community-of-interest test but instead improperly created an entirely new framework, the court held that the Board permissibly “adopted a community-of-interest test based on some of the Board’s prior precedents, and . . . did explain its reasons for doing so.”  In so holding, the court explicitly recognized the ambiguity in the Act’s command that bargaining units must be “appropriate,” and observed that the Board merely granted Judge Posner’s “wish that the Board would give [the traditional community-of-interest test] ‘a precise meaning.’” Slip op. at 13 (quoting Cont’l Web Press v. NLRB, 742 F.2d 1087, 1090 (7th Cir. 1984)).

Next, the court concluded that the Board acted within its discretion in requiring a party claiming that the smallest appropriate unit must include additional employees to show that the excluded employees share an “overwhelming community of interest” with the proposed unit.  Indeed, the court explained that “[t]he Board has used the overwhelming-community-of-interest standard before, so its adoption [here] is not new.”  After citing numerous cases, including the D.C. Circuit’s Blue Man Vegas LLC v. NLRB, 529 F.3d 417 (D.C. Cir. 2008), the court agreed that the Board merely clarified existing law, overruled any inconsistent precedent, appropriately placed the burden of proving overwhelming community of interest on the employer (who typically possesses the information to make that case), and explained its reasons for doing all of the above.

Turning to Specialty’s third defense, the court concluded that the Board’s test did not run afoul of Section 9(c)(5), which prohibits the Board from finding “the extent to which the employees have organized . . . controlling” in making unit determinations.  To the contrary, the court noted that the Board first engaged in an independent community of interest determination to find out whether the proposed CNA-only unit was appropriate “aside from the fact that the union had organized it.”  Further, “[a]s long as the Board applies the overwhelming community of interest standard only after the proposed unit has been shown to be prima facie appropriate, the Board does not run afoul of the statutory injunction that the extent of the union’s organization not be given controlling weight.”  Slip op. at 19 (internal quotations omitted and emphasis in original).

Finally, the court held that “the Board did not abuse its discretion in adopting a generally applicable rule through adjudication instead of rule making because NLRB v. Bell Aerospace Co. Div. of Textron, Inc., 416 U.S. 267, 294 (1974), holds both that ‘the Board is not precluded from announcing new principles in an adjudicative proceeding and that the choice between rule making and adjudication lies in the first instance within the Board’s discretion.’”

The Court’s opinion is available here.

The Speciality ruling reminds health care and other employers of the highly union-friendly bent of the NLRB under the current administration, as well as the hazards of mishandling efforts to defend against union organizing and other protected activities under the NLRA.  Beyond the obligation to recognize and bargain with properly certified collective bargaining unions, the NLRB and other federal labor laws also grant employees a host of other protections.  Among these are recently affirmed rights-even for a worker not represented by a union – to insist another employee be present when participating in disciplinary and certain other meetings with management, rules limit the ability of employers to prohibit or restrict employees requiring employees to keep confidential and not discuss among each other  salary, wages or other terms of compensation or employment  terms and conditions, and others.  For this reason, health care or other organizations should seek the advice and assistance of qualified legal counsel experienced with labor management relations matters to review policies for compliance, to prepare and administer anti-organizing activities, and to evaluate and respond to union organizing or bargaining activities.

For More Information Or Assistance

If you need assistance responding to HIPAA or other health industry regulatory, enforcement or other developments, reviewing or tightening your policies and procedures, conducting training or audits, responding to or defending an investigation or other enforcement action or with other health care related risk management, compliance, training, enforcement or management concerns, the author of this update, attorney Cynthia Marcotte Stamer, may be able to help. Vice President of the North Texas Health Care Compliance Professionals Association, Past Chair of the ABA Health Law Section Managed Care & Insurance Section and the former Board Compliance Chair of the National Kidney Foundation of North Texas, Ms. Stamer has more than 25 years experience advising health industry clients about these and other matters. Her experience includes extensive work advising, representing and training health industry and other clients on HIPAA and other privacy, data protection and breach and other related matters.  She also advises hospitals, nursing home, home health, rehabilitation and other health care providers and health industry clients to establish and administer compliance and risk management policies; prevent, conduct and investigate, and respond to peer review and other quality concerns; and to respond to Board of Medicine, Department of Aging & Disability, Drug Enforcement Agency, OCR Privacy and Civil Rights, HHS, DOD, and other health care industry investigation, enforcement and other compliance, public policy, regulatory, staffing, and other operations and risk management concerns. A popular lecturer and widely published author on health industry concerns, Board Certified in Labor and Employment Law, Ms. Stamer’s experience includes continuous involvement in advising and representing health care organizations about employment, labor-management, peer review and staffing and other workforce management and compensation concerns.  Ms. Stamer also continuously advises health industry clients about compliance and internal controls, workforce and medical staff performance, quality, governance, reimbursement, and other risk management and operational matters. Ms. Stamer also publishes and speaks extensively on health and managed care industry regulatory, staffing and human resources, compensation and benefits, technology, public policy, reimbursement and other operations and risk management concerns. Scribe for the ABA JCEB annual Technical Sessions meeting with OCR for the past three years, Ms. Stamer also is recognized for her extensive publications and programs including numerous highly regarding publications and programs on HIPAA and other privacy and data security concerns as well as a wide range of other workshops, programs and publications on other compliance, operational and risk management, and other health industry matters. Her insights on these and other related matters appear in the Health Care Compliance Association, Atlantic Information Service, Bureau of National Affairs, World At Work, The Wall Street Journal, Business Insurance, the Dallas Morning News, Modern Health Care, Managed Healthcare, Health Leaders, and a many other national and local publications.  You can get more information about her health industry experience here. If you need assistance responding to concerns about the matters discussed in this publication or other health care concerns, wish to obtain information about arranging for training or presentations by Ms. Stamer, wish to suggest a topic for a future program or update, or wish to request other information or materials, please contact Ms. Stamer via telephone at (214) 452-8297 or via e-mail here. If you or someone else you know would like to receive future updates about developments on these and other concerns from Ms. Stamer, see  here.

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©2013 Cynthia Marcotte Stamer, P.C.  Non-exclusive license to republish granted to Solutions Law Press.  All other rights reserved.

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