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 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 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 six 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.