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Six healthcare workers fired for refusing mandatory flu shots for religious reasons won back pay and offers of reinstatement from Saint Vincent Hospital in Erie, PA, according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).1
The case could have implications for the increasing number of hospitals requiring influenza vaccination as a condition of employment, as the hospital agreed to compensate the workers some $300,000 for lost wages and compensatory damages after the EEOC filed suit in September 2016.
The Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology (APIC) listed mandatory flu immunization policies as among its legislative priorities in a recently issued public policy document.2
“Mandatory influenza vaccine has been something we have been a proponent of for quite some time. It has really shown evidence of impact as far as protecting patients and also the staff that are taking care of them,” says Susan Dolan RN, MS, CIC, president of APIC and an IP at Children’s Hospital Colorado in Aurora.
While Dolan did not want to comment specifically on the legal case without thorough review, she says, “We will certainly be looking into that [case] both at our facility and as an organization to help our members.”
A Saint Vincent statement cited in media reports3 and attributed to the hospital’s corporate parent, Allegheny Health Network, notes, “The consent decree filed this week between the EEOC and Saint Vincent Hospital does not constitute any admission of violations by Saint Vincent or a finding on the merits of the case. Although we have vigorously and respectfully disagreed with the EEOC’s position and characterization of how employee claims outlined in this lawsuit were handled by the hospital, we have reached a resolution of the matter in the interest of avoiding the expense, delay, and burden of further litigation on all parties.”
How did the hospital get itself in such a tenuous legal position? Some clues may be found in the Sept. 22, 2016, EEOC complaint,4 which cited the federal Civil Rights Act in accusing the hospital of “unlawful employment practices on the basis of religion.”
More specifically, the EEOC complaint alleges “discrimination because of religion by failing to accommodate their sincerely held religious beliefs and practices that prevented them from receiving the influenza vaccine.”
Among the faiths and beliefs cited by the workers were Russian Orthodox, fundamental Baptist, and Christian mysticism. The latter belief was cited by an RN that was also described by the EEOC as an “ordained interfaith minister and a practitioner of Christian mysticism according to the teaching of ‘A Course in Miracles.’” According to the complaint, some workers enlisted spiritual leaders to contact the hospital and some described their beliefs in writing. The exemptions were not granted, with the hospital ruling in some cases that the workers failed to provide “proof” of the religious doctrine, the EEOC complaint states.
“In the 2013-2014 flu vaccination period, the period in which the defendant [St. Vincent] denied the religious exception requests [of the six HCWs], defendant received 11 employee requests for exemption from the mandatory influenza vaccination requirement that identified religious grounds as the basis of the requested exemption,” the EEOC alleges in the complaint. “Defendant denied all 11 religious exemption requests.” According to EEOC’s lawsuit, during this same period, the hospital granted 14 vaccination exemption requests based on medical reasons while denying the religion-based exemption requests. In addition, some religious exemptions were granted for the 2015-2016 flu season, the EEOC stated, suggesting the agency was going to argue that the hospital policy was inconsistent.
According to the EEOC, the consent decree between the agency and Saint Vincent states that if the hospital is going to mandate flu vaccination as a condition of employment, “it must grant exemptions from that requirement to all employees with sincerely held religious beliefs who request exemption from the vaccination on religious grounds unless such exemption poses an undue hardship on the Health Center’s operations. … [The facility] must adhere to the definition of ‘religion’ established by Title VII and controlling federal court decisions, a definition that forbids employers from rejecting accommodation requests based on their disagreement with an employee’s belief; their opinion that the belief is unfounded, illogical, or inconsistent in some way; or their conclusion that an employee’s belief is not an official tenet or endorsed teaching of any particular religion or denomination.”1
With similar cases being reported, a law firm noted in a blog post5 that “the EEOC seems to be on a march to challenge any employer — particularly hospitals — that denies an employee a requested exemption from a mandatory flu shot for religious reasons. … [G]iven the EEOC’s aggressive position on this issue, it is critical for any employer who is going to deny an employee’s request for an exemption to, first, carefully explore what accommodations can be offered to the employees, and second, document the reasons for the denial. If disciplinary action against an employee is contemplated, you should consult your legal counsel.”
Financial Disclosure: Senior Writer Gary Evans, Ebook Design Specialist Dana Spector, Peer Reviewer Patrick Joseph, MD, and Nurse Planner Patti Grant, RN, BSN, MS, CIC report no consultant, stockholder, speaker’s bureau, research, or other financial relationships with companies having ties to this field of study.