Maine’s largest health care organization is under fire after one of its hospitals offered precious COVID-19 vaccines to the out-of-state consultants it brought in to break up an attempt by nurses to unionize.
In a statement, MaineHealth described the consultants as a small group of people who came to “Maine Medical Center to provide support to nurses and managers in answering questions about the impact of joining a union.”
The health system conceded it was a mistake to give shots to non-Maine residents. “We understand that non-Maine residents are not eligible for any vaccine and acknowledge that we erred in vaccinating those individuals,” MaineHealth said.
But some outraged legislators said their grievance with MaineHealth went beyond just offering shots to out-of-staters—they felt the hospital’s inoculation of union-busters showed particularly poor judgement.
“Every out-of-state consultant and lawyer that MaineHealth flew in as part of their intimidation campaign got the vaccine instead of someone’s grandparent or loved one,” Maine Senate President Troy Jackson, a Democrat, said in a statement Tuesday. “It’s concerning that MaineHealth would put their own anti-union agenda, and their own bottomline, ahead of the health and well-being of Maine people. At a time when Maine has only a limited supply of the COVID-19 vaccine and is still grappling with a public health crisis, this seems particularly cruel.”
Maine’s governor, Janet Mills, also slammed the move.
“Vaccinating out-of-state contractors who came here to disrupt a union organizing effort was an insult to the hardworking nurses trying to assert their rights and to those who are waiting patiently for their turn – the 80 year old grandmother who hasn’t seen her family in months, the man being treated for cancer, the teacher wanting to return to the classroom, the grocery clerks and delivery drivers who are exposed to the public and working to put food on the table,” she said in a statement Tuesday.
The vaccinations were revealed by Bill Nemitz, a Portland Press Herald columnist, on Sunday. Nemitz wrote that MaineHealth had not only given the shot to employees who don’t deal directly with patients or are currently working from home, but that Maine Medical Center had offered employees of two out-of-state consulting firms the jab during the heat of an anti-union campaign.
Nemitz reported that representatives of Reliant Labor Consultants and a New York City law firm were vaccinated while working in Maine. Reliant Labor Consultants—which helps employers prevent unionization—was brought in to Maine Medical Center last month to hold training sessions with nurses, according to WMTW, an ABC affiliate in Poland Spring, Maine.
The firm did not respond to VICE News’ request for comment.
Nurses at Maine Medical Center recently filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board to join the Maine State Nurses Association, which is affiliated with the National Nurses Organizing Committee and National Nurses United, according to the Bangor Daily News. Jeff Sanders, president of Maine Medical Center, urged against unionization in a video posted to the hospital’s YouTube page earlier this month, saying there would be a “much brighter future working together, without a union in between.”
Cokie Giles, a registered nurse and president of the Maine State Nurses Association, told VICE News that working conditions during the pandemic have been stressful, and that her union has been particularly strong during the health crisis. To vaccinate anti-union consultants amid that, she said, is disrespectful to not just to the hospital workers, but to the greater community of Portland, Maine, where the hospital is based.
“These people are not front-line workers, they’re there to pretty much scare the nurses out of forming a union,” Giles said. “That’s their job.”
MaineHealth insisted in a statement Monday that it had vaccinated its team members in accordance with state and federal health guidelines back in December, and that reports saying otherwise were false.
The Maine Department of Health and Human Services, however, expressed “strong concern” about hospitals giving the vaccine to people who didn’t work directly with patients back in December, according to the Bangor Daily News. The state updated its guidance in January to leave out non-patient-facing staff, the Daily News reported.
At that point, MaineHealth said it had given first doses to everyone on its “full care team” who wanted one.
“MaineHealth’s decision to vaccinate all its care team members has proven critical as it prepares to set up mass vaccination clinics across its service area,” MaineHealth said in a statement Monday. “For instance, a majority of those employees who have been working primarily from home during the pandemic are now being redeployed to staff vaccine clinics. MaineHealth stands by its decision to secure its full health care system by vaccinating its full care team.”
Additionally, MaineHealth said in its statement that it vaccinated the consultants “during the week starting January 17.” State officials issued new guidance against vaccinating out-of-staters January 18, MaineHealth said.