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Union threatens Clark County with legal action amid pandemic

Updated April 2, 2020 - 11:03 pm

Union leaders threatened Clark County with legal action Thursday for suspending contracts with roughly 9,000 workers, including medical staff and others on the front lines of the battle with the coronavirus pandemic who they say must now contend with job insecurity.

Leaders of the Nevada chapter of Service Employees International Union 1107 urged the County Commission to reverse the temporary suspension of collective bargaining agreements, or for County Manager Yolanda King to resign.

Michael Urban, the union’s chief negotiator, said the move was unprecedented, unauthorized and illegal, and appeared to be financially driven while underscoring the union was “clearly prepared to take legal action” to stop it.

“But that’s not what we should be concentrating on in these bad times,” Urban told reporters during a virtual press conference. “We should be concentrating on working together to try to get a resolution that saves jobs and protects the health and safety of workers.”

In a letter sent Tuesday, King informed the union of the decision, citing county authority under Nevada law after the county declared a state of emergency March 15 and the need to quickly respond to the demands of the crisis until the emergency is lifted.

The SEIU is not alone: The county has suspended contracts with all unionized employees — about 84 percent of 10,000-plus workers — to ensure speed and efficiency during the pandemic, spokesman Erik Pappa said.

No time to delay urgent decisions

While King has faced swift criticism, leaders at the county-owned and operated University Medical Center also acted to suspend contracts with roughly 4,000 of SEIU’s members who work at the hospital.

The decision allows UMC to quickly respond to certain issues without having to “meet and confer,” or negotiate terms, with union leaders, according to UMC spokesman Scott Kerbs. As one example, he said, the hospital has been able to authorize telecommuting with full pay for its employees in order to promote social distancing.

“Due to the rapidly evolving nature of this global pandemic, we simply do not have time to delay urgent decisions,” Kerbs said in a statement.

In an email, Pappa said the county has similarly been able to enact public health guidelines, including flexible work hours and sites, without having to first negotiate details with union leaders as would have been required.

Fears of layoffs

But the union is concerned the suspension might set a path toward layoffs while closing the lines of communication between parties as SEIU works to ensure its members have access to protective equipment they need amid shortages around the world, even as county and UMC officials vowed to remain responsive.

The shortage of personal protective equipment affects UMC employees but also county workers in the field, such as those who interact with homeless individuals or those in the Department of Family Services who come face to face with children, union leaders said.

“Unfortunately by taking the action (King) has taken, there’s certainly the extreme possibility that favorites of management will be kept, seniority will not be honored and people will be laid off on a willy-nilly basis by the county,” Urban said.

SEIU President Brenda Marzan cast the decision as “dangerous and reactive,” while Executive Director Grace Vergara-Mactal called King “out of touch with the workforce and the needs of Clark County and UMC.”

The union had been working diligently to resolve any issues before the suspension, she said, and its members have been patient, flexible and resilient despite working during unprecedented times.

“So now we can’t talk to (the county) about how we can protect the heroes that are working tirelessly, risking their lives to save and take care of the sick in this community,” Vergara-Mactal said.

Unclear road ahead

Union leaders added they don’t know what next to expect, but Urban said their next move will be determined by the county’s. He said contractual violations will likely be taken to the state Employee Management Relations Board, recalling how the union went to the board in the throes of the Great Recession as the county laid off employees.

The uncertain path forward is shared by employees who have expressed concern over the past two days, Marzan said.

“They don’t know what this means to them,” she said, preaching their efforts to protect the community. “And now they don’t know if they are going to have a job.”

Contact Shea Johnson at sjohnson@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0272. Follow @Shea_LVRJ on Twitter.

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