Showing posts with label flu shot. Show all posts
Showing posts with label flu shot. Show all posts

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

THE $300,000 FLU SHOT


While getting a flu shot may result in a temporarily sore arm, a Pennsylvania hospital is feeling some significant financial pain in its bank account after settling a lawsuit over its mandatory flu shot policy. 
As first reported here back in October 2016, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) has filed lawsuits nationwide against healthcare facilities which require that their employees receive seasonal flu vaccines.  The EEOC’s position is that such policies violate Title VII of the Civil Rights Act (“Title VII”) by failing to accommodate the religious beliefs of healthcare employees.
 
As previously reported, one of the hospitals being sued by the EEOC was Pennsylvania-based Saint Vincent Health Center.  On December 23, 2016, Saint Vincent agreed to settle the EEOC lawsuit for $300,000, which includes back pay and compensatory damages to six former employees who were fired for failing to comply with the hospital’s policy.  The settlement also requires offers of reinstatement to the six employees, and includes a consent decree requiring injunctive relief.
To recap the facts of the lawsuit, the EEOC alleged that in October 2013, Saint Vincent implemented a mandatory seasonal flu vaccination requirement for its employees unless they were granted an exemption for medical or religious reasons. Under the policy, employees who received an exemption were required to wear a face mask while having patient contact during flu season in lieu of receiving the vaccination. Employees who refused the vaccine but were not granted an exemption by the Health Center were fired. 

From October 2013 to January 2014, the six employees identified in the EEOC’s lawsuit t requested religious exemptions from the flu vaccination requirement based on sincerely held religious beliefs, and the Health Center denied their requests. When the employees continued to refuse the vaccine based on their religious beliefs, they were terminated. In its lawsuit, the EEOC stressed that during the same period, the hospital granted fourteen (14) vaccination exemption requests based on medical reasons while denying all religion-based exemption requests.

Under the consent decree, if Saint Vincent chooses to require employee influenza 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, and it must also notify employees of their right to request religious exemption and establish appropriate procedures for considering any such accommodation requests.
The decree also requires that when considering requests for religious accommodation, the Health Center 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. The decree further requires that Saint Vincent provide training regarding Title VII reasonable accommodation to its key personnel and that it maintain reasonable accommodation policies and accommodation request procedures that reflect Title VII requirements.

Does this mean mandatory vaccination policies at healthcare facilities are prohibited?  According to the EEOC’s Philadelphia District regional attorney, Debra M. Lawrence:
While Title VII does not prohibit health care employers from adopting seasonal flu vaccination requirements for their workers, those requirements, like any other employment rules, are subject to the employer's Title VII duty to provide reasonable accommodation for religion.  In that context, reasonable accommodation means granting religious exemptions to employees with sincerely held religious beliefs against vaccination when such exemptions do not create an undue hardship on the employer's operations.

However, reasonably accommodating healthcare employees who have direct contact with patients may be easier said than done.  According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the flu is highly contagious and people with flu can spread it to others up to about 6 feet away. Most experts think that flu viruses are spread mainly by droplets made when people with flu cough, sneeze or talk. These droplets can land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby or possibly be inhaled into the lungs. Less often, a person might also get flu by touching a surface or object that has flu virus on it and then touching their own mouth or nose. 
While the effects of the flu on most people are not life-threatening, the CDCP notes that severe cases of the flu can result in death for some people, such as the elderly, young children, and persons with certain health conditions, including weakened immune systems.  The consent decree does allow Saint Vincent to adopt on-the-job precautions to avoid the transmission of the flu to its patients by employees who have been granted a religious exemption.




Sunday, June 5, 2016

RELIGIOUS DISCRIMINATION….OR INFECTIOUS INSUBORDINATION?


The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) has filed suit against a Massachusetts hospital, alleging it discriminated against an employee on the basis of religion when it fired her for not complying with a facemask requirement after she declined a flu shot for religious reasons.  EEOC v. Baystate Med. Ctr., Inc. raises unique issues of what constitutes a reasonable accommodation to religious practices under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII)”, as well as the scope of what is an undue hardship for employers, especially in the context of a health care provider.

In the federal lawsuit filed on June 2, 2016, the EEOC alleges that Baystate Medical Center fired administrative employee Stephanie Clarke after she sought a religious accommodation from the hospital’s mandatory employee immunization policy.  The hospital had an accommodation policy for employees who refused flu shots for religious reasons, which required such employees to wear a surgical facemask while at work.  The hospital suspended Clark without pay after she failed to wear the mask consistently, complaining she was not able to adequately communicate as part of her job while wearing the mask, which covered her nose and mouth.  She was told that she could not return to work until she either received an immunization or wore the mask at all times.  When Clark declined either option on the basis of a religious objection, the hospital treated her response as a job resignation.

Title VII prohibits employment discrimination based on religion, and imposes on employers a proactive duty to accommodate sincerely held religious practices that may conflict with workplace practices, as long as the religious practice does not impose an undue hardship on the employer.  For purposes of religious accommodation under Title VII, undue hardship is defined by courts as a “more than de minimis” cost or burden on the operation of the employer's business. For example, if a religious accommodation would impose more than ordinary administrative costs, it would pose an undue hardship. This is a lower standard than the Americans with Disabilities Act undue hardship defense to disability accommodation.

What raises the not-so-clear issues in this lawsuit is that Clark was not a healthcare worker, but instead an administrative talent acquisition consultant, who, while she worked at the hospital, had no direct contact with patients.  In public statements, the hospital has asserted that its policy of requiring employee immunizations or alternatively, for objecting employee to wear a facemask, is a reasonable measure to ensure patient safety.  While it is anticipated the EEOC will argue that Clark’s lack of patient contact renders the hospital’s actions unreasonable, it is as likely that the hospital could argue that because of the infectious nature of the flu, a non-healthcare worker present in the hospital could infect other employees who ultimately would have contact with patients, including those with weakened immune systems.  
  
An issue that also is likely to arise is whether wearing a facemask is actually an effective reasonable accommodation for purposes of patient safety.  The federal Centers for Disease Control have noted that it is unclear how well masks work to prevent transmission of the flu, or to what extent masks actually block or filter viruses from the air.  However, some experts note that they do offer some level of protection.  As such, the case also will place before the federal court the issue of whether a healthcare facility should be given deference in determining policies for patient safety, and whether having to modify such policies constitutes an undue hardship under Title VII.
Whether Clark’s objection to flu shots is a sincerely held religious practice is unlikely to become an issue in the case.  Title VII construes religion very broadly, and in religious discrimination cases, courts are often reluctant to “play God” by deciding what is or is not a sincerely held religious belief or practice.  In the EEOC lawsuit, it infers that Clark’s objection is based on her personal interpretation of the Bible. 

However, as previously noted in The Employee with the Dragon Tattoo, despite such judicial deference, on occasion a court will find that an employee’s claimed religious practice simply does not pass the smell test.  In Copple v. California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (Cal. Ct. App. 4th Dist.), the California Court of Appeals has held that a prison guard’s self-created church of “Sun Worshiping Atheism” was not a protected religion, and the employer had no duty to accommodate the plaintiff’s belief in getting a full night’s sleep by waiving mandatory overtime hours.