Safety or Employee Rights First?

Healthcare facilities can be a virtual breeding ground for influenza, especially during this time of year. With that in mind, Indiana University Health Goshen Hospital recently mandated that all of its employees receive flu shots, for the well-being of patients and staff alike.

And they take the requirement seriously: A refusal to comply with the new directive is apparently a fireable offense, at least for some.

According to the hospital, 1,300 employees declined the vaccine. Eight of them, including at least three experienced nurses, were let go as a result.  

One of the nurses, Ethel Hoover, cited her religious beliefs as grounds for refusing the shot. She filed a religious exemption, two medical exemptions and two appeals in an attempt to forego the mandatory flu shot. Each request was denied, and Hoover’s employment with the hospital ended on Dec. 21, six days after the IU-imposed Dec. 15 flu shot deadline had passed.

IU Health is certainly not the first healthcare organization to mandate flu shots for its employees, and Hoover isn’t the first employee to challenge the legality of such a requirement.

Consider the recent case involving a vegan healthcare worker at a Cincinnati children’s hospital, who was fired after refusing a flu shot on the basis that chicken eggs are used in the preparation of flu vaccines. A federal court judge refused to dismiss the claim, determining it possible that the plaintiff’s veganism could be a moral or ethical principle she abides by with the same conviction as a religious belief.

Such cases should remind employers with a duty to accommodate for religious beliefs that performing individualized assessments may be wiser than imposing blanket policies “that apply across the board,” says Frank Chernak, partner and labor and employment attorney in the Philadelphia office of Ballard Spahr.

For instance, oblige employees to fill out a form stating the reasons why they seek an exemption, says Chernak. “Then you’re engaged in a dialogue with the employee. And maybe [you find] there’s another way to handle the situation, and to make an accommodation.”

For example, the Cincinnati hospital’s HR team could have explained to the vegan employee—who worked in customer service and didn’t have frequent, direct contact with patients—that a vaccination without animal products was also available. Or, in the case of Hoover, the organization could have considered putting her in a role with less or no patient contact during flu season, assuming such a move could be made without undue hardship.

 “A lot of employers will simply ask the employee, ‘Is there any reason you can’t do it?’ And have a form to document the employee’s reasons, whether it’s a medical exemption or a religious exemption,” says Chernak. “That’s a good way to do it.”