Dear David: Nursing a Grievance

Question:

I am currently working in a nursing home that is privately owned and operated. My employer has on numerous occasions let it be known that she is exempt from a lot of rules and regulations as a result of this, such as not paying employees for mandatory meetings and dropping by your home or the hospital if you call in sick.  All of the employees of this facility are overworked and underpaid; some even work off the clock to get the job done. I am not new to working in nursing homes and know that they all run the same, whether they’re corporate- or private-owned, and it saddens me. If anyone attempts to make change in the facility he or she is deemed a “troublemaker” and is fired for reasons that seem legitimate, though it’s very obvious that’s not the case. I have been searching for unions to help nursing home employees and have turned up none.  I think it’s past time we get better benefits, paid time off, more staff, and equal treatment! I just need advice to get this ball rolling.

— Cheated Nurse, Texas

 

Answer:

That’s the spirit, sister! When the boss is treating you wrongly, don’t give in and don’t give up! It sounds like your employer is not so scrupulous (or dangerously ignorant), so some caution is warranted. First, let’s understand some of the rights that come into play here:

Coverage under most federal employment laws depends on the size or level of business of the employer, not whether the business is privately owned and operated. I’m not sure where your boss got the idea that she’s exempt. Nursing homes are covered both by the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), which provides for the minimum wage and overtime, and would require that you be paid for mandatory meetings and reimbursed for working “off the clock”, and the National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA”), which protects the right of workers to join unions and otherwise act together and advocate for better working conditions. Both of these laws contain anti-retaliation provisions.  If you and your co-workers are acting together to try to get better pay and working conditions, it’s against the law for your employer to take any adverse action against you for that reason.  You can file a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB”) if your employer breaks this law, and the NLRB will fight to restore what you’ve lost. Under FLSA, you canfile a complaint with the Department of Laborfor your employer forcing you to work or attend meetings “off the clock”, and the law protects you against any retaliation from your employer for doing so.

It’s important to understand your legal rights, but it’s just as important to know that a lot of what you want to see change (better pay and benefits, paid time off, more staff) are all things that you may need to work toward with your coworkers, and that’s what a union does.

Start with some research. What are other workers in your industry doing to address wages, etc.? Then ask yourself who else at work do you know and trust well enough to get this ball rolling with you. Your goal should be to build a team of coworkers who will stand together when it’s time to stand up. Aim for a majority but leave blabbermouths, boss’s pets, and management out of it. Meet away from work so as not to prematurely tip off your boss.

As a group, talk through your workplace concerns and decide together what’s most important and how you want to move forward. If you don’t have a critical mass (a majority or, better yet, a two-thirds supermajority), keep organizing. Once you do, and it sounds to me like you are ready for it, talk to the group about forming a union. Some basic first steps can be found here. Keep me posted!