A Midwestern hospital chain fired more than 50 of its nearly 14,000 employees for refusing to get a flu shot.
Essentia Health introduced a mandate requiring all of its employees to get vaccinated against the flu, whether or not they work in one of its clinical facilities in Minnesota, North Dakota, Wisconsin and Ohio.
None of those states legally require healthcare workers to get flu vaccines, which reduces the flu’s prevalence by between 40 and 60 percent, according to the CDC.
At least two groups plan to take action against the healthcare network.
Sharon Beaulieu (pictured in her most recent work ID photo) was fired from her position as a medical records clerk at Essentia Health.
Sharon Beaulieu worked for Essentia as a medical record clerk, until the company fired her last Friday.
Beaulieu went back to her office, and filled out the exemption paper work.
‘I just wrote “N/A” on everything [and] sent them a letter that that’s not what I’m claiming as exempt; I’m going to claim this is a human rights violation,’ she says.
In fact, Beaulieu has gotten a flu shot every year until now.
‘It’s never been about the vaccine,’ she says, ‘I just don’t feel that anyone as a right to tell me what to inject into my body or not, that’s what it boiled down to for me.’
Beaulieu works in one of Essentia’s non-medical warehouse facilities in west Duluth, Minnesota. She has no contact with patients. She says she hardly even interacts with co-workers from her basement post.
Beaulieu, 68, recalls getting emails notifying her that she would be terminated if she did not get vaccinated, beginning about a month ago. Her supervisor spoke to her once, asking if she intended to get the shot.
Essentia told her she could come back to work today, and she suspects she’ll find out later whether or not she’s been terminated for good. Beaulieu is not optimistic, and she says she will not get the shot under any circumstances.
As a clerk, Beulieu says she makes $15 an hour.
‘Not enough to afford a lawyer,’ she says, half-jokingly.
In October, the United Steel Workers union filed a lawsuit against Essentia, alleging that the company denied valid exemption requests and failed to negotiate with the union.
A Midwestern hospital network fired more than 50 of its employees for refusing to get flu shots
Now, the Minnesota Nurses Association (MNA) is also taking action. The union filed an unfair labor relations complaint against Essentia at the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).
The flu shot mandate ‘violates the contract that the nurses have with the employer because it introduced a policy without bargaining and the contract expressly says that if you’re going to introduce something new, you have to bargain,’ says Rick Fuentes, a communications specialist at the MNA.
He says that the union attempted to bargain with Essentia on November 7.
The employer ‘had no intention of negotiating,’ he says.
Essentia has held its ground, arguing that it is acting in its patients’ best interests.
‘Essentia Health cares for vulnerable patients every day. Immunization significantly minimizes the risk of patients contracting influenza while under our care,’ says Dr Rajesh Prabhu, an infectious disease specialist and patient quality and safety officer.
THE LATEST ON THIS YEAR’S FLU
In the US, between 140,000 and 170,000 have been hospitalized due to the flu since 2010, the CDC estimates.
As many as 56,000 may have died of the illness in the same time period.
The CDC estimates that the flu shot reduces the number of cases by between 40 and 60 percent.
Very few people have an allergy to the flu shot, which cannot give you the flu.
It can however give you side effects that mimic some of the flu’s milder symptoms, including:
- low fever
- runny nose
- sore throat
In an email to Daily Mail Online, he stated that ‘more than 99.5 percent of Essentia’s 13,900 colleagues have made a commitment to the safety of their patients and community by receiving the flu vaccine, being approved for an exemption or in the exemption process.’
Fuentes argues that company mandates are not necessarily the best way to ensure patient safety.
While many other vaccinations are mandatory for healthcare workers, a study published in January called into question the effectiveness of required flu shots in particular. It found that the benefits were negligible.
In 2014, Minnesota state legislators introduced a bill to mandate flu vaccination for all healthcare workers, but it did not pass.
‘When you rely on a shot to keep from getting sick from healthcare workers, you see healthcare workers develop this bullet proof mentality,’ says Fuentes.
‘You see fewer flu prevention methods such as ordinary hand-washing practices and protective equipment like masks,’ when flu shots are mandated, he claims.
‘MNA nurses are not opposed to the flu shot. However, they are opposed to a mandated flu shot policy,’ Fuentes says.
He says that the union wanted to negotiate for ‘protection’ for nurses who might experience allergic reactions or get sick after having the shot.
An estimated one to two percent of people are allergic to the shot. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that all people over six months old get the shot, which it says cannot cause the flu itself.
‘Nurses are caregivers and patient advocates, at their bedsides or away, and getting flu shots is something they strongly advocate, but nurses believe that a mandated flu shot policy against their rights and is counterproductive to making sure that their patients are well taken-care of,’ says Fuentes.