Representatives from Saint Vincent Hospital, which is now a member of Allegheny Health Network, have agreed to rehire six of the hospital’s former employees after they were fired, because they refused to be vaccinated with the flu shot. During the 2013-2014 flu season, several of Saint Vincent Hospital’s employees refused to be vaccinated against influenza, citing that the flu shot was in violation of their religious beliefs. Those employees were subsequently fired from the hospital.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission accused Saint Vincent Hospital of religious discrimination, according to an article in Erie Times-News. The group stated in its lawsuit, which was filed in the U.S. District Court in Erie, that the hospital allowed medical exemptions for 14 of its employees that same flu season. Those employees retained their positions at Saint Vincent Hospital. The commission argued that Saint Vincent Hospital violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 when it terminated the employment of the staff members that refused to get the flu shot while requesting a religious exemption. At the time, Saint Vincent officials said that the hospital’s “mandatory flu vaccination policy allows employees to apply for an exemption to the policy based upon religious beliefs or health concerns.”
Officials from the hospital said that exemptions are “always given careful and appropriate consideration.” Hospital officials disagreed with the claims in the lawsuit, according to Becker’s Hospital Review.
“Absent proof establishing an undue hardship, federal law requires an employer to provide reasonable accommodations for sincerely held employee religious beliefs, even if some may consider those beliefs idiosyncratic,” attorney Debra Lawrence, who represented the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, said.
The six employees who will soon have the opportunity to return back to work at the hospital were identified in legal documents as Alekandr Gevorkyan, Aza Galustyan, Brian Nash, Joshua Dolecki, Lisa Waller, and Beth Theobald. All six refused flu shots for religious reasons not long after Saint Vincent made the vaccine a requirement for employment in October, 2013. The hospital required that the employees provide certification by a clergy member. According to Erie Times-News, when employees provided that documentation, their exemptions were still not approved and they were fired anyway. Reportedly, in each instance of clergy-signed documentation, the employee was told that they didn’t actually “provide proof of religious doctrine.”
Now, those six former employees will each get a portion of approximately $300,000 in backpay and damages as part of a settlement. The hospital officials maintain that they did not actually violate anyone’s civil rights, but agreed to file the consent decree.
“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,” Dan Laurent, a spokesman for Allegheny Health Network, which is now Saint Vincent’s parent organization, told Erie Times-News. “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.”
The settlement also states that Saint Vincent Hospital must offer the employees their previous job at the same rate of pay and with the same benefits. If the position is no longer vacant, the hospital must offer them a similar job if one becomes available in the next two years at any of the locations within a 50-mile radius of the hospital.
The hospital had implemented the mandatory flu shot policy in order to receive the maximum Medicare reimbursement. A Saint Vincent official reportedly said that at least 95 percent of the hospital’s entire staff had to be vaccinated in order to qualify. In February, 2014, 99.4 percent of its workforce met the requirement or had received an exemption.
The consent decree specified that employees at Saint Vincent shall no longer be required to prove that their religious objection to vaccination is “an official tenet or endorsed teaching of any religion or denomination.” Furthermore, the hospital can no longer conclude that an employee’s “religious belief, practice or observance is not sincerely held simply because (Saint Vincent) deems the belief, practice or observance unreasonable, inaccurate, unfounded, illogical or inconsistent in Saint Vincent’s view.”
Saint Vincent Hospital was Erie, Pennsylvania’s first hospital, but has become an integrated healthcare provider across the northwestern Pennsylvania region, according to Allegheny Health Network. After joining Allegheny Health Network, Saint Vincent Hospital reportedly stopped requiring employees to get a flu shot in order to keep their jobs.
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