Labor Issues
by Barbara Young
Employee diversity, health-care costs and union campaigns head the key operating challenges of the day.
There is no shortage of high-voltage business issues confronting a meat and poultry business manager, but none are more crucial than the relationships between employees and employers. More than a half-million men and women in a range of ages and ethnicities make up the industry’s workforce.
To be sure, certain workplace matters — such as employee safety, production efficiency, employee retention and recruitment — are perpetual issues. The top concerns now confronting employers and their employees include workforce diversity, spiraling employee health-care costs and an increase in union organizing.
“If not handled in a timely and effective manner by employers, these ongoing developments may very well make the difference between a company’s competitive success or failure,” cautions Dan Rizzi, a partner in Nixon Peabody’s Labor & Employment Law Practice Group. “Non-union employers, large and small, should expect that they will become the focus of union organizing activity, including corporate campaigns, and should consider now what that will mean to their operations and what steps they should take.”
As Rizzi points out, the changing face of the U.S. workforce with its every increasing diversity is a major challenge — especially in the current climate of immigration reform.
There has been little progress to reform the nation’s immigration policies since May 1, 2006, when Hispanic workers and their sympathizers participated in national demonstrations to increase public awareness of the plights of documented and undocumented American workers.
American manufacturers of a range of goods and services find themselves in limbo due to the uncertainty of immigration reform. At issue are two divergent bills that have divided U.S. legislators — one would crack down hard on illegal immigrants, and the other would recognize their vital contributions to the U.S. economy and impose less restrictive punishments.
The immigration issue notwithstanding, Rizzi emphasizes that diversity in the workplace is also tied to demographics. “The successful employer will embrace the diversity of its workforce, and use it to its advantage when developing, marketing and selling itself and its products and services to an increasingly diverse group of customers and clients,” he says. “Human resources professionals must lead the way in recruiting, attracting and maintaining a diverse workforce of employees who understand and can comfortably and effectively service the changing markets and communities in which they operate.”
Moreover, Rizzi advises employers to avoid rigid rules and inflexible approaches to work schedules, benefit programs and other terms and conditions of employment. “Employers must give way to more enlightened approaches and policies that accommodate the differing and legitimate needs of a diverse workforce and, at the same time, contribute to the company’s overall success,” he says.
Escalating employee health-care expenses are fast becoming a sizable part of companies operating budgets.” The price of health-care benefits provided to current and retired employees may spell the difference between financial success and disaster,” Rizzi says. “The insurance premiums paid by employers to provide such health-care benefits may amount to as much as 50 percent of the total compensation costs [wages and benefits] for a particular employee.”
Rizzi suggests that employers inform and educate employees about their health-care benefits as an important first step in developing innovative programs designed to meet legitimate health-care needs without bankrupting or otherwise making their companies financially uncompetitive.
“Human resources professionals and their employee benefits colleagues must lead the way in creating programs that promote wellness and reward healthy employees,” Rizzi says. “The focus should be on prevention and early treatment of serious illness to create an environment in which employee health is a common goal and a shared enterprise.”  NP