COVID-19 and public-sector labor policy

The COVID-19 outbreak, and the debate surrounding governmental responses to it, has understandably dominated the news cycle in recent weeks. The outbreak has touched every aspect of American life, and public-sector labor policy is no exception. This week, we take a look at some noteworthy recent events in which COVID-19 and public-sector labor policy have intersected.

Local governments in Nevada suspend public-sector union contracts in response to COVID-19

Local governments in Nevada have suspended more than 25 public-sector collective bargaining agreements in the past month in response to the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak. The suspensions have affected at least 18,000 public-sector workers, including all unionized employees of Clark County and the city of Las Vegas.

Michael Urban, an SEIU negotiator, said the union was “clearly prepared to take legal action” over the contract suspensions. Urban added, “But that’s not what we should be concentrating on in these bad times. We should be concentrating on working together to try to get a resolution that saves jobs and protects the health and safety of workers.”

On April 8, the Clark County Commission informed SEIU Local 1107 that “employee protections such as whistleblower laws and the Merit Personnel System will stay in place, labor-management committees may continue to meet as long as social distancing practices are adhered to, and contract provisions will be followed in the event of layoffs, according to a copy of the letter.” Commissioner Justin Jones said, “We wanted to make it very clear that if there are economic considerations in regards to people’s employment or layoffs that those aren’t going to be done under the auspices of the suspension that was put in place last week.”

SEIU Local 1107 Executive Director Grace Vergara-Mactal and President Brenda Marzan said, “Now, thousands of frontline healthcare and public sector workers can go to work with peace of mind that their wages, benefits, and majority of their job protections are secure.”

Freedom Foundation urges governors in five states to suspend collection of public-sector union dues

In late March, the Freedom Foundation, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, issued letters and press statements calling on the governors of California, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, and Washington to suspend the collection of public-sector union dues for a period of three months in response to the COVID-19 outbreak in the United States.

The group argued that “a temporary, three-month dues suspension would allow public employees” to retain the money normally deducted from their paychecks to pay union dues. “That money would then be spent on goods and services, supporting local businesses and creating jobs, at no cost to taxpayers.”

Four of the five states – California, Oregon, Pennsylvania, and Washington – are Democratic trifectas, meaning Democrats in each state control the governorship and majorities in both chambers of the legislature. Ohio is a Republican trifecta.

Last summer, Ballotpedia collected membership data for each state’s most prominent public-sector unions, enabling us to determine relative union presence in each state. In our study (the full results of which are available here), we found that these five states ranked as follows with respect to public-sector union membership:

The governors of the five states have not commented publicly on the issue, nor have the major public-sector unions in those states.

State judge rejects Alaska State Employees Association request for court order for COVID-19 guideline compliance

On March 31, Anchorage Superior Court Judge Thomas Matthews rejected a request by the Alaska State Employees Association (ASEA), an affiliate of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, seeking an injunction regarding the state’s COVID-19 guidelines for government workers.

The ASEA informed members on March 23 it would seek a court order requiring the state to “comply with social distancing federal and state guidelines for those employees who are essential, provide proper equipment for employees who interface with the public, and allow those non-essential state employees to telework.” The union filed a motion for a temporary restraining order on March 24.

According to a press release from the Alaska Department of Law, Attorney General Kevin Clarkson (R) approved of Matthews’ ruling, saying, “These are unprecedented times and we must all step up to do what we can to get through this pandemic, while still keeping the State functioning to provide essential services to Alaskans.”

ASEA Executive Director Jake Metcalfe said, “Without the Administration taking action and adhering to the strictest measures and precautions, we risk our entire workforce for state government falling ill or becoming carriers of this novel coronavirus which could overwhelm our healthcare infrastructure and shut government down. … ASEA is going to review the order and decide what it may do next.”

What we’ve been reading

The big picture

Number of relevant bills by state

We are currently tracking 93 pieces of legislation dealing with public-sector employee union policy. On the map below, a darker shade of green indicates a greater number of relevant bills. Click here for a complete list of all the bills we’re tracking.

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Number of relevant bills by current legislative status

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Number of relevant bills by partisan status of sponsor(s)

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Recent legislative actions

No legislative actions have been taken on relevant bills since our last issue.