June 9, 2021

Houston Hospital Makes COVID Vaccine Mandatory - 178 Employees Walk Out, Suspended

Houston Hospital Makes COVID Vaccine Mandatory - 178 Employees Walk Out, Suspended

178 employees with Houston Methodist, a hospital system in Houston, Texas, were suspended from their jobs after they staged a walkout and opted not to receive the COVID-19 vaccine that the hospital mandated for its employees. 

Houston Methodist has made headlines as the first hospital system in the country to officially mandate the COVID-19 vaccine for all employees, barring religious and medical exemptions or deferments for pregnancy or lactation. According to a statement released by the hospital systems, almost 100% of employees have complied with the mandate. Outside of the 178 employees who have been suspended, 285 employees received a medical or religious exemption to bypass the vaccine, and 332 were granted deferrals for pregnancy and other reasons.

Along with staging a walkout and a protest against the hospital’s vaccine mandate, 118 employees of the hospital also sued the hospital on May 28 for taking disciplinary action against them. Their case is supposed to be heard by a federal judge this week for a final decision. Until then, all employees who refused the vaccine have been suspended without pay and are facing permanent termination. 

Can Employers Mandate the COVID-19 Vaccine for Nurses?

Obviously, the situation in Houston is highlighting the question that is on a lot of nurses' minds: can employers mandate that nurses have to receive the vaccine or be fired? 

The answer to that question is: probably.

I know, that’s not super helpful but let me break it down for you further. As of right now, under the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), federal law states that employers are not prevented from mandating vaccines for their employers. In other words, employers do have the legal right to require employees to receive vaccinations as a condition for employment. This already occurs for some vaccines that healthcare workers are required to have, such as the Hepatitis B vaccine series. 

However, there’s not a 100% clear consensus on whether nurses will be mandated to receive the COVID-19 vaccine specifically for a couple of reasons: 

1) EUA status. The federal law that says employers are not prevented from mandating vaccines does not specifically note if the law can be upheld if those vaccines are not officially approved. That means that while the law doesn’t specifically say the vaccine has to be officially approved, it also doesn’t spell out what to do if a vaccine isn’t officially approved either. 

So legally speaking, it is a gray area that is still being ironed out. And as we all know by now, none of the COVID-19 vaccines on the market are officially FDA-approved yet–they are under Emergency Use Authorization (EUA), which means that they have not been formally approved by the FDA yet. 

2) State law trumps all. The bottom line is that, right now, state laws dictate what employers can require for vaccines, according to the CDC. And some states are moving towards setting laws against vaccine mandates. (A mandate against mandates? Stay with me here.)  

For instance, Texas governor Greg Abbott–who has become rather infamous for flouting commonly-held COVID-19 precautions, including mask-wearing–signed legislation today that says that no business or government entity in Texas can require customers to provide proof of vaccination in order to receive services. 

That is a bit different from employers to employees, of course, but it still shows that some states are moving in the direction of supporting individuals who want the choice over receiving the vaccine. In fact, as of now, NPR reports that 85 different pieces of legislation are in the works to prohibit vaccine mandates. 

What the CDC Does Say About Vaccines and Vaccine Exemptions

The law may have some gray area over COVID-19 vaccination requirements for employees, but here’s what the CDC clearly has spelled out on its website about vaccines and vaccine exemptions:

  • If your employer requires proof of vaccination, they can’t ask you to include any medical information in that proof. 
  • Both medical and religious exemptions are allowed for vaccines. 
  • ADA-covered employers should “encourage” rather than mandate vaccines. 

Essentially, if you’re a nurse, you should be aware of what your state and employer have decided about mandatory COVID-19 vaccinations and if you have a medical or religious exemption. Many healthcare workers have already used such exemptions for employer-mandated vaccines, such as the yearly influenza vaccine. And of course, the official stance of health organizations, including the CDC and the WHO, is that COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective. 

What Happens Next

A federal judge will hear the case of the Houston Methodist employees who sued, but some say that their case does not have legal merit, solely based on the legalities that they filed under. (Trying to prove the vaccine is an “experiment” under the Nuremberg code, says The Eagle, doesn’t hold up legally when there are documented trials on record and the point of the vaccine is to decrease a pandemic, not to experiment for the sake of experimenting.)

Monday was the deadline that the hospital gave the employees to receive the vaccine or else and some opted to get the shot after all–about 27 have now received at least one dose. Other employees are standing firm that their employer has no right to mandate the vaccine and are fully planning on seeking new employment if the judge rules against them in the case.

“I’d rather be 80, 90 years old on my deathbed knowing I did the right thing, rather than doing something for money or to keep a job. That’s not what’s important,” Jennifer Bridges, an RN of six years with the hospital, told a local news station. “If we can win that battle, we won’t be fired. If we don’t and they win, we will get terminated, but it will go to the Supreme Court as a wrongful termination lawsuit. We will fight this until the bitter end,” she said.

Either way, the case will be an interesting–and precedent-setting–one as the country’s employers, schools, and institutions move to make decisions on how they will handle vaccine requirements for their own organizations. 

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