Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Reason and reasonableness

Last flu season (2004) Virginia Mason Medical Center announced it would require nurses to receive flu vaccinations, the nation's first hospital to do so. Sounds pretty reasonable, considering nurses are both at risk from contracting flu from infectious patients and if themselves contagious, could put patients at risk. But the Washington State Nurses Association asked U.S. District Court in Seattle to bar the requirement after the hospital refused to negotiate. Both sides entered into binding arbitration. Last week the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported the outcome, a complete victory for the nurses union.

This seemed counter-intuitive, the union flexing its muscle over an issue it should not have fought. Voluntary programs usually do not work, often producing less than 50% participation. So the hospital's requirement seemed reasonable. Indeed the union doesn't oppose but encourages vaccination. So what's the deal?

It sounds like a familiar story. An employer dealing with its employees in a high-handed and what seems an arbitrary manner. Indeed, the memo sent to staff read:
"Staff must be vaccinated by Jan. 1, 2005; staff who cannot document vaccination by that date will face termination if they are not taking influenza prophylaxis."
And the union's response was predictable:
The union encourages its members to receive the vaccination, said Anne Tan Piazza, a spokeswoman for the Washington State Nurses Association.

But it's another matter when the company threatens termination to those who refuse, she said.

The association is pleased with the precedent set by the arbitrator's award, she said. "In the future, if the hospital wants to have a policy requiring vaccination, they must first come to the table and negotiate with the association," she said.
The arbitrator agreed. And indeed it is reasonable and appropriate to work with employees to ensure a reasonable outcome to a reasonable policy.

The reason for a reasonable request shouldn't be, "Because we said so." That's true even when there isn't a union to protect workers.