A New Jersey union has filed an unfair labor practice charge against Meridian Health, claiming its nurses were warned against posting about labor negotiations on social media.
Nurses at Jersey Shore University Medical Center in Neptune and Southern Ocean Medical Center in Manahawkin were told that their Facebook and Instagram posts in support of the Health Professionals and Allied Employees union violated the five-hospital system's social media policy. HPAE spokeswoman Bridget Devane said union officials looked into Meridian's social media policy and found it in violation of labor regulations.
The charges, which were submitted by the union to the National Labor Relations Board on Friday, state that Meridian managers told union members that they “should not be posting on Facebook or mentioning Meridian hospitals in their posts.” The union told the NLRB that the social media policy can be read to prohibit protected concerted activities, which the NLRB generally classifies as nonmalicious actions by two or more employees who are “acting together to improve wages or working conditions,” according to its website.
HPAE also said that management told employers who were passing out leaflets that they were being watched "and their names were being documented.” The NLRB could not immediately be reached for comment.
Sherrie String, senior vice president of human resources for Meridian, said in a statement that the health system was notified of the charge Monday afternoon and is actively investigating it.
“Meridian does have a comprehensive social media policy that outlines exercising good judgment and refraining from communicating patient information or proprietary information of Meridian,” String said. “Due to the sensitive and confidential nature of current labor negotiations, we are unable to comment further but remain committed to reaching an amicable contract.”
Devane, the HPAE spokeswoman, maintained that none of the posts shared any patient information and were solely in support of the union. Some of the posts are public, but not easily found. The union has released photos that were posted, but Devane said it is unable to provide the actual posts because many were on private social media pages.
As social media has become increasingly popular, the NLRB has likened posting on the Internet to “standing at the water cooler and talking,” said James Walters, a partner at labor law firm Fisher & Phillips in Atlanta. Such activity, as long as it happening off-the-clock, is a protected concerted activity, he said.
“Anything that is protected concerted is basically hallowed ground,” Walters said, noting that to avoid labor issues, many health systems have cut back their social media policies to where they are vague and inconsequential.
It's possible a post could have included information that violated privacy laws, but it's also possible that this could be the case of a middle manager who misunderstood hospital rules, Walters said.
As for the complaint regarding surveillance of union members who were distributing leaflets, Walters confirmed that spying on members engaged in union activities is not allowed by federal labor law.
At the center of the union's negotiations with Meridian is adequate staffing, an issue that is always front and center for nurse unions. Labor leaders have frequently expressed concern that not enough providers are willing to agree to nurse-to-patient staffing ratios or other provisions that ensure nurses don't have more patients than they can handle. Nurse unions are pushing staffing legislation in state legislatures across the country.
The nurses' current contract expires on Saturday, and the two sides have been in negotiations since September. The social media posts are meant to put pressure on the hospital to move on the union's proposals, Devane said.
“Historically with negotiations we haven't really had trouble at the bargaining table (with Meridian), so we're seeing a different tone this year,” Devane said. “We're very surprised how little movement we've seen on the table.”
Devane speculated that the holdup in negotiations could be related to distinct planned mergers with Raritan Bay Health Services in Middlesex County, N.J., and Hackensack (N.J.) University Health Network. “They will be an extremely large health system after (the Hackensack) merger, and we're not sure if this is an indication of, if there's a larger system about to be created, pressure from the merger or just a different tone from this year trying to make changes,” she said.
Below is one of several photos that staff members posted.