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Labor Relations COVID-19 pandemic

The current coronavirus pandemic has brought labor relations to the spotlight in some unexpected ways. On April 28, 2020, President Donald Trump signed an executive order using the Defense Production Act that requires meat-processing plants to remain open during the COVID-19 outbreak. According to Bloomberg, this could set up a showdown between the nation’s biggest meat producers and the unions that say they want protections for workers during this pandemic.

In recent weeks, food giants, such as Tyson, Cargill, Conagra and Smithfield Foods have reported cases of workers falling sick in some of their facilities. Many American meat-processing plants had shut down because of the coronavirus outbreak, leading some to fear massive disruptions to the nation’s meat and poultry supply chain. Along with the executive order, the government has promised to provide additional protective gear for employees as well as health guidance to these employers. This has done little to assure unions that have been speaking out against what they deem as unsafe plant conditions putting workers’ lives are stake. It was pressure from various local health officials and unions led to the voluntary closures of meat-processing facilities in the first place. This latest executive order seems unlikely to stem the growing tensions.

Small and Mid-Sized Companies Can Get Big-Time Labor-Relations Issues Too

According to the New York Times, private-sector unionization is at a historic low. But if the COVID-19-related strikes, protests and news coverage have been any indication, the appeal of unions may be growing within the workforces of some industries. Unions are certainly not going away any time soon. And employers should prepare themselves for the kind of labor-relations issues and concerns that will be coming down the line as businesses try to keep their workforces productive and safe. Even small and mid-sized companies should consider how they handle labor relations as states start to reopen for business and we enter this new era.

Are You Ready If a Coronavirus-Related Labor Issue Arises?

Just like behemoths like Conagra and Amazon, companies of all sizes are starting to face unionization issues. Unlike the giant corporations, smaller businesses do not have dedicated labor-relations teams. Pandemic-time reports of employers laying off workers in the midst of unionizing efforts and replacing them with contractors, and of disgruntled employees seeking legal recourse are everywhere. The need for experienced people to handle labor relations is real, especially for companies who employ those deemed essential workers.

As we have detailed before, labor relations are a critical component of a successful business strategy, particularly when working in construction, transportation, manufacturing or other industries where labor unions are common. Aspects of labor relations impact your profit margin, workplace culture and more. Labor-relations efforts often go hand-in-hand with other strategic human resources processes and policies that affect union and non-union employees alike. When done well, labor relations can help build a compliant and beneficial relationship between management and labor.

Beyond collective bargaining and contract negotiations, important labor-relations functions include:

  • Compliance oversight
  • Grievance procedures and policies
  • Labor policy development
  • Training and advising staff for contract compliance
  • Union and non-union policy coordination and development
  • Preparation of MOU’s (Memorandum of Understanding) to supplement the current labor agreement

What You Don’t Know About Labor Relations Can Hurt Your Business.

Even without the economic hardships of running a business during a pandemic, labor-relations issues can be difficult to resolve smoothly or satisfactorily. Ignore them at your own peril. The disruption, loss of revenue and bad publicity of that a labor union walkout or strike can have on mid-sized company can be catastrophic.

Using inexperienced labor negotiators or relying on an incomplete understanding of labor laws enacted and enforced by the National Labor Review Board (NLRB) could result in significant losses of talent, time, and money.

Labor Relations vs. Employee Relations

It’s also important not to lump all workforce-relations functions into one bucket. You have to consider employee relations that are associated with nonunion facilities as well as labor relations that are associated with unionized facilities. Sometimes the issues require addressing both. Ideally, employers want to address employee relations issues before workers want to advance the issues by unionizing. We are seeing in the news now how not handling non-unionized employee relations well can come back to haunt employers. If you wait until unionization efforts are underway to address concerns, you may have waited to long.

RAI Resources Offers Expert, Experienced Labor-Relations Consulting

When labor-relations issues arise, you need to protect your organization’s interests, yet also reach a fair and equitable resolution that can help employee retention and productivity. We can help. Our Labor Relations Services offer each client consulting services with decades of experience and expertise in labor laws and best practices.

We also bring to your side of the table effective interpersonal communication skills and the focus you need to successfully navigate negotiations and other labor-management interactions. Our team has a deep understanding of cultural diversity and inclusion issues that can impact labor relations as well. We can review your existing agreements and policies to ensure they comply with all Department of Labor (DOL) standards, and we can help you meet the numerous compliance requirements for employers.

Don’t wait for a complaint or crisis to land you in the hot seat. Contact us for a labor-relations consultation.