On August 30 the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) issued its long-awaited decision in Specialty Healthcare & Rehabilitation Center of Mobile, in which it announced a new standard for determining what constitutes an appropriate bargaining unit in non-acute health care facilities.

The union in Specialty Healthcare sought to represent a unit consisting only of Certified Nursing Assistants (CNAs) in a nursing home.  The home argued that the unit should include other non-professional employees such as cooks, dietary aides, activity assistants, the social services assistant, staffing coordinator, maintenance assistant, the medical records and data entry clerks, central supply clerk, and the receptionist.  In other words, the employer argued for the well-established facility-wide “service and maintenance unit” that has been the approved unit in nursing homes for more than 20 years.

Under the new standard, if the union seeks a unit of employees that is “readily identifiable as a group” (e.g., a unit of a single job classification) and those employees “share a community of interest,” the NLRB will approve the unit requested by the union unless the employer can show that employees in a larger unit “share an overwhelming community of interest” with the employees in the unit requested by the union.
The NLRB found that the unit of CNAs requested by the union in Specialty Healthcare was an appropriate unit and rejected the home’s request to add the other non-professional employees to the unit.
In his dissent, Board Member Hayes explains the NLRB’s decision and its impact in the context of the NLRB’s proposed changes to its election procedures:

First, in this case, they [the NLRB majority] define the test of an appropriate unit by looking only at whether a group of employees share a community of interest among themselves and make it virtually impossible for a party opposing this unit to prove that any excluded employees should be included. This will in most instances encourage union organizing in units as small as possible … . Next, by proposing to revise the rules governing the conduct of representation elections to expedite elections and limit evidentiary hearings and the right to Board review, the majority seeks to make it virtually impossible for an employer to oppose the organizing effort either by campaign persuasion or through Board litigation.

Non-acute healthcare providers can expect that unions will seek smaller units, likely to include units consisting of employees in a single-classification.  This will make it easier for unions to win elections, allowing them to limit the requested unit to those employees with the strongest support for the union.  This will lead to a proliferation of bargaining units in nursing homes, senior living facilities, and other non-acute healthcare providers and, as a consequence, multiple contracts and potential job actions by multiple groups of employees.

Non-acute healthcare providers should consult with their labor counsel to discuss this decision and strategies for minimizing its potentially damaging impact on their facilities and the care they provide.