The U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments this week in a closely watched labor case that may determine whether nurses with supervisory functions are barred from unionizing.
The case, National Labor Relations Board v. Kentucky River Community Care, is set for oral arguments on Feb. 21.
The high court last addressed this issue in 1994, when it affirmed a lower-court ruling that said nursing home licensed practical nurses were supervisors because they oversaw nursing assistants and therefore were not protected by the National Labor Relations Act, which allows employees to organize collective bargaining units (May 30, 1994, p. 4). However, the justices didn't reach any conclusions about the supervisory status of the licensed practical nurses.
Labor groups have accused healthcare employers, including hospitals, of using that ruling to try to stop nurses from collective bargaining. The American Nurses Association, which filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the new case, said the court's decision could put nurses "at risk of losing the protection of the (National Labor Relations) Act," which allows employees to organize and engage in collective bargaining.
"It has the potential to affect everyone," said Diana Ceresi, a lawyer for the Service Employees International Union, which also has filed a brief in the case.
The SEIU and the ANA are among five labor unions that filed briefs in support of the National Labor Relations Board, urging the court not to exclude some nurses from unions. The case, on appeal from the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati, involves the Caney Creek Rehabilitation Center, an 80-bed residential psychiatric treatment center in Pippa Passes, Ky.
In a 2-1 decision, the appeals court in October 1999 ruled that six nurses at the center were supervisors and shouldn't be included in a collective-bargaining unit of employees, including rehabilitation counselors and assistants. The court said the center's nurses were supervisors because they directed licensed practical nurses in dispensing medicine, dealt with scheduling shortages, assigned employees and had the authority to write up employees who didn't cooperate with staffing assignments.
"These duties are supervisory in nature, and there can be no doubt that these activities are conducted in the interest of the employer," the appellate court said in its decision.
The Kentucky State District Council organized the Caney Creek employees, but the center's parent company, Kentucky River, objected, contending among other things that the nurses are supervisors. Kentucky River refused to bargain with the union, and when the NLRB ordered the company to do so, it appealed to the 6th Circuit.
"It would be real inconsistent that just because you have a professional degree, professional status . . . you are now unable to form a union," said Thomas Schulz, an attorney with the carpenters' union.
A brief filed in support of the employer in this case said the NLRB's denial of a nurse's supervisory status compromises "the healthcare employer's ability to select, control, compensate and ensure the ultimate loyalty of such individuals." The Alexandria, Va.-based Society of Human Resource Management and the American Society for Healthcare Human Resources Administration, Chicago, which is a personal-membership group of the American Hospital Association, filed the brief.