Labor relations are already being affected by the Ebola crisis in the United States.
On October 8 and 9, at LaGuardia Airport in New York, approximately 75 non-union employees of an aircraft cleaning contractor for Delta Airlines engaged in a one-day strike, complaining that they were insufficiently equipped and trained for work that brought them into contact with passengers' and crew members' body fluids. Their strike was supported by a local of the Service Employees International Union, which has been seeking to organize the employees.
On October 15, the National Nurses United union hosted a national conference call on Ebola for member and non-member nurses to hear about and discuss the Ebola issue. Press reports indicate that more than 4,000 nurses signed up for the call. The NNU's executive director, Rose Ann DeMoro, has repeatedly called for emergency readiness plans for Ebola and other disease outbreaks, as well as tougher and mandatory standards on hospitals' preparation for and handling of Ebola. A former official with the Teamsters and the California Nurses Association, she recently advocated withholding Medicaid and Medicare funds from hospitals that do not satisfy such standards. She has criticized the handling of Ebola by Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas, opining that the training and equipment provided to nurses and other staff was unsatisfactory. (Nurses Nina Pham and Amber Vinson became infected with the virus earlier in October after treating Thomas Eric Duncan, who died at the hospital after traveling to Dallas from Liberia. Ms. Pham has since been declared cured at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, and at press time Ms. Vinson was reportedly recuperating at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta.)
According to some news reports, Ms. Pham and Ms. Vinson may have been flown elsewhere for treatment because management at the Dallas hospital feared a walkout by non-union nurses who felt they were insufficiently trained and equipped to treat Ms. Pham or Ms. Vinson without risk to themselves. Hospital management denied the reports.
In any event, labor unions including the NNU and the SEIU are trying to advance their arguably broader political agendas with a timely and targeted focus on employee safety and health, pressing President Obama, lawmakers, and regulators for tougher standards and enforcement. This comes as government agencies and employers are admittedly "playing catch-up" in their efforts to keep up with the Ebola situation as it unfolds.
Two federal agencies, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, have information about Ebola on their websites that most employers will want to share with their employees. The agencies' guidance is evolving, and each agency has updated its guidance since the beginning of October.