2021 | Government

Union files complaint against Park and Planning Commission vaccination policy

Labor leader says hearing on dispute is scheduled for Monday

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A top labor union leader in Montgomery County said management at the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission has been “bargaining in bad faith with its employees” regarding a vaccination policy, leading to an unfair labor practice charge. 

In a news release, Gino Renne, the president of United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 1994 MCGEO — a union that represents thousands of county government workers in various divisions — said the commission management “unilaterally decided to ostracize and isolate the non-vaccinated workforce” from those who were vaccinated. 

According to the unfair labor practice charge that MCGEO filed, the commission management decided on Oct. 29 to implement a mandatory vaccination policy for its employees. If employees didn’t agree to vaccination, they could submit a request for a medical or religious exemption. 

But the charge said the unilateral decision to implement this policy was outside the scope of collective bargaining.

“Health and safety are two prominent mandatory subjects of bargaining and the Commission’s unilateral implementation of a COVID vaccination policy is a clear violation of its duty to bargain in good faith with MCGEO,” the filing states.

Asuntha Chiang-Smith, executive director of the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, wrote in an email that because the commission is still bargaining with MCGEO, she is limited in discussing the dispute.

“We are committed to creating safe spaces for our patrons and our employees where they can breathe easy,” Chiang-Smith wrote. “We have been working on vaccination protocols with all of our unions since August.”

MCGEO’s unfair labor charge also stated that the commission staff changed the options for a COVID-19 questionnaire in early October.

Initially, MCGEO and commission leadership agreed to the following answers to a question asking whether employees were vaccinated: Yes, No, or I decline to answer. 

The charge alleged that management later removed the third answer from the electronic survey, and that those who declined to answer the new questionnaire were “threatened with disciplinary action including written reprimands.”

Renne said in an interview Thursday that these management decisions, along with the decision to segregate more than 80 employees who were not vaccinated from those who were, are some of the worst he’s ever seen in his time as a union leader. 

The decision to segregate employees is “outrageous from the medical perspective, as well as the legal perspective,” Renne said. 

A lot of the workers who were affected often work outdoors, away from the public and away from some of their colleagues, he said, so the risk of spreading the virus is minimal compared to those working in correctional facilities or school health professionals.

“When you have folks working by themselves, and no public anywhere to be seen, they don’t even work alongside one another. … The risk has been negligible,” Renne said.

Renne said a hearing on the matter is scheduled for Monday before a neutral arbitrator between the two parties.

The dispute between MCGEO and Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission leadership arises as County Council Members and County Executive Marc Elrich are considering a vaccination mandate for county employees.

Council Members Hans Riemer and Will Jawando have sponsored legislation that would create a mandate for all county employees, but allow for medical exemptions. 

Elrich has said he isn’t opposed to a mandate in principle, but is concerned about the impact it would have on public safety, if too many first responders leave because of the mandate.

Several police officers, firefighters and others spoke against the proposed mandate at a County Council hearing last month. 

Steve Bohnel can be reached at steve.bohnel@bethesdamagazine.com