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Maintaining Positive Labor Relations Under Current Exigent Circumstances

Emergency worksite protocols may deal with a wide spectrum of the employment environment: mandated absence from work, tele-work, loss of work, modified work days and hours, leave use, and receipt of pay, are some examples. In other words, “…wages, hours, and other terms and conditions of employment”. Given the emergency nature and the goal of safety, agencies have the ability to immediately and unilaterally implement these protocols. However, some of your decisions, and even more of the impacts or effects of those decisions, remain mandatorily negotiable.

Labor organizations have a long memory, and how you handle matters in this very real and global crisis will live on for years, even decades. Your most important tool in managing and maintaining positive Labor Relations is timely and open communication with the involved labor organizations (union or local association leaders). Some of you already have, and more are pursuing, emergency worksite protocols for adoption by the governing body. It is imperative that you notify labor as soon as you know the planned direction and content. Labor representatives need to hear information directly from the executive decision maker(s) before they hear it from one of your employees, a board member, or the press. No one likes surprises in labor relations, and surprising a labor organization in a fashion to where they may be perceived by their members as clueless, ineffective, or simply incompetent will greatly damage their reputation and your relationship, and may even call your motives into question. You do not want to be viewed as taking advantage in emergency.

The issue becomes when to notify labor, and when to provide the opportunity to meet. The when is as early as possible (i.e., when you have a plan ready), and absolutely prior to presenting it to your governing body for action. This allows them to “know as much as anyone else” and possibly offer some helpful insights or concerns to consider. However – nothing should delay you seeking governing body approval to take the necessary actions. From there, your Labor Relations responsibilities continue as operational effectiveness details emerge and evolve as you gain knowledge and experience.

Keeping labor organizations abreast of your perspective on your protocol’s effectiveness, necessary changes, and unforeseen consequences is important and should be communicated on an ongoing basis. They will likely contact you frequently to offer their perspective as well; listen and respond as timely as operations permit. Calling, texting, emailing, and meeting when conditions allow and circumstances dictate will strengthen trust.

When to entertain more formal talks (i.e., both decision and impact/effects negotiations) will depend on how the Covid-19 crisis evolves and the impacts on your agency, employees, and community. If and when a lull allows it, reach out to labor to begin more detailed talks. If labor contacts you first, try to accommodate their desire to talk even if you do not feel sufficiently ready. Let them know what you have to offer may be limited, but that you want to hear their questions, concerns, and goals.

The day before writing this, I received some feedback from two agencies I work with who have made up-front communication with labor a priority during this emerging crisis. These reactions seem to support the notion that open communication and transparency are important, and we really are all in this together:

From an employee to his department head, “Thank you for taking the necessary precautions needed to keep the staff safe. Hopefully your proactive decision to split our department will keep us COVID-19 free.

From a union business agent to a special district general manager, “Thank you, Lisa. I hope everyone is well. Call me if I can assist with anything.”

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