3 Questions with Will Erickson: UMass Memorial and union collaborate to boost worker flu vaccine rates

Will Erickson
Will Erickson, M.P.H.

Will Erickson, M.P.H., is Organizer for Process Improvement at UMass Memorial Health Care in Worcester on behalf of SHARE, the AFSCME-affiliated union that represents approximately 3,000 members, including respiratory therapists, radiologic technologists, nursing assistants and administrative workers. Patient Safety Beat talked with Erickson recently about SHARE’s efforts around flu vaccination and other employment issues related to the pandemic.

Betsy Lehman Center: UMass Memorial has expanded its flu vaccine mandate, which applied exclusively to clinical providers in the past. Does the policy now include members of SHARE? Tell us about your efforts to get everyone a flu shot this year.

Will Erickson: Some details still being discussed, regarding remote workers, for example, but yes, all members of SHARE are covered by the mandatory flu vaccine policy, which is a big change for our members. ­­There’s been a lot of shop-floor discussion about it, and while many SHARE members are happy to know that all of their coworkers will be vaccinated, some have questions. As a union, we're taking all those concerns seriously, and working to address them by supplying good information or arranging consultation with the right people — whether that’s an infectious disease physician, somebody in human resources or someone else.

We are also communicating across many channels – we know that crafting the “perfect” email blast isn’t the best way to address our members’ concerns. We’re handling many on a case-by-case basis through our problem-solving process. We record questions as they come in and assign people to address them individually. We know our members well, and we’re fortunate to have a strong labor-management partnership here at UMass Memorial, so we have a lot of practice working things out to the benefit of everyone. We can’t handle all issues this intensively, but we’ve made vaccination a priority. We don’t want to see anyone lose their job over this — I’m very hopeful that we’ll find a way to satisfy all our members’ concerns while keeping everyone as safe as possible.

Concern for the upcoming flu season and COVID in general has strengthened our awareness that we’re part of a larger community.

Betsy Lehman Center: COVID-19 has prompted the expansion of flu vaccination mandates this year. Is it also complicating the process of providing flu shots to personnel?

Will Erickson: Yes it is! In prior years, it was really easy to get vaccinated at UMass Memorial. There were flu “fairs” everywhere. You would see large groups of people packed together, standing in line during their lunch breaks, passing clipboards around, catching up with friends, but now that’s not safe. Some departments are doing flu shots onsite, but now many people need to schedule an appointment, which is more challenging for everyone.

For all of the new complications, however, concern for the upcoming flu season and COVID in general has strengthened our awareness that we’re part of a larger community. We depend on each other. Our members and others have needed to quickly make big changes. Peoples’ attitudes toward sick leave, for example, have shifted from tending to “tough it out” when they weren’t feeling well to making sure to stay home and avoid spreading illness. We’ve all had to become more flexible to accommodate family needs and school schedules, which is a challenge given health care scheduling. I’m very focused on making sure we help people stay in their jobs, for everyone’s sake.

Betsy Lehman Center: What else are you hearing from your members as you discuss flu vaccination?

Will Erickson: Some have asked whether mandatory flu vaccination means they will also be mandated to get a COVID vaccine down the road. There’s a lot of anxiety about what some people worry has been an overly politicized process. We’ve been reassured by our management partners that any conversation about a COVID vaccine will be separate and based on the evidence and environment at that time. It’s important that these conversations begin on a foundation of trust. This spring was tough, and it’s going to be a long winter — we are extremely fortunate at that we had a strong partnership with UMass Memorial before the pandemic hit.

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