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April 18, 2014

Firing Employees Who Don’t Get Flu Shots: What Risks Do Hospitals Face?

As hospitals continue to see an onslaught of flu patients, they also face challenges to flu vaccination policies designed to reduce the spread of flu to patients and fellow employees.  Hospitals are understandably concerned with protecting patients, visitors and employees from contracting the flu and the potentially serious consequences to the health of elderly and infant patients. However, protecting patients against flu can create legal liability when employees are disciplined, discharged or suffer other adverse action because they do not get a flu shot.

Employment Considerations for Flu Vaccination Policies—The National Labor Relations Act

What limitations exist on a hospital’s ability to create and implement a flu/other vaccination policy?  Under the National Labor Relations Act, a flu vaccination policy is a mandatory subject of bargaining.  This means that unionized hospitals cannot unilaterally implement such a policy without first giving the union notice of the intended policy and bargain over the policy if the union requests to do so.

A hospital does not have to bargain if the union has “clearly and unmistakably” waived its right to bargain over the issue.  A waiver is typically found in the “Management Rights” clause, which was the case in a recent National Labor Relations Board (NLRB; the Board) decision, Virginia Mason Medical Center, 358 NLRB No. 64 (2012), where the Board found a clear and unmistakable waiver in the Management Rights clause.  That clause stated, in relevant part, that the Medical Center has the right to “operate and manage the Hospital, including but not limited to the right to require standards of performance and…to direct the nurses…to determine the materials and equipment to be used; to implement improved operational methods and procedures…to discipline, demote or discharge nurses for just cause…and to promulgate rules, regulations and personnel policies….”

The Union representing the Medical Center’s registered nurses filed an unfair labor practice charge with the Board and a hearing was held before an NLRB Administrative Law Judge (ALJ).  The ALJ ruled, and the Board agreed, that the Management Rights clause did not specifically mention wearing facemasks (which the flu policy required in certain areas for non-immunized nurses), but it did “specifically allow the Hospital to unilaterally ‘direct the nurses’ and ‘determine the materials and equipment to be used’ [as well as] implement improved operational methods and procedure.’”  The ALJ noted that the Hospital had several infection control policies that required nurses to wear masks under various circumstances, and found that requiring non-immunized nurses to wear masks was within the Hospital’s authority to “determine the materials and equipment to be used [and] implement improved operational methods and procedures.”

With properly crafted language in a Management Rights clause or elsewhere in a collective bargaining agreement, a unionized hospital has the right to unilaterally implement a new flu vaccination policy or modify an existing policy.

Employment Considerations for Flu Vaccination Policies—Disability and Religious Discrimination

Hospitals, of course, have reached different decisions on how to balance the interests of patients and employees. As such, policies vary in the flexibility given to employees regarding non-vaccination and the resulting consequences:

  • Vaccination encouraged but not mandated
  • Vaccination mandated with exemptions for medical contraindication, religious beliefs (discipline/other adverse consequences for non-exempted employees)
  • Vaccination mandated and masking required for medical contraindication, religious beliefs (discipline/other adverse consequences for failure to be vaccinated or wear mask, as applicable)
  • Vaccination required (discipline/other adverse consequences for non-compliance)

Flu vaccination policies also differ regarding applicability.  Some policies apply only to employees who come into direct contact with patients.  At the other end of the continuum, the policy applies to all employees, independent contractors, students, interns, vendors and others who provide services inside the hospital.

Union and non-union hospitals should consider the potential for discrimination claims based on a flu vaccination policy that requires any group of employees to get a flu shot or face adverse consequences (such as discharge) if they fail to do so for any reason.  The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) would likely find such a policy to be unlawful.  The EEOC has taken the position in its “Pandemic Preparedness in the Workplace and the Americans with Disabilities Act” guidance that

“[a]n employee may be entitled to an exemption from a mandatory vaccination requirement based on an ADA disability that prevents him from taking the influenza vaccine. This would be a reasonable accommodation barring undue hardship (significant difficulty or expense). Similarly, under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, once an employer receives notice that an employee’s sincerely held religious belief, practice, or observance prevents him from taking the influenza vaccine, the employer must provide a reasonable accommodation unless it would pose an undue hardship as defined by Title VII (“more than de minimis cost” to the operation of the employer’s business, which is a lower standard than under the ADA).”

www.eeoc.gov/facts/pandemic_flu.html – 48k – 2009-10-21

Recently, a federal district court in Ohio refused to dismiss a complaint by a registered nurse alleging religious discrimination because she was fired for refusing to comply with the hospital’s mandatory flu vaccination policy.  Chenzira v. Cincinnati Children’s Medical Center, S.D. Ohio, No. 1:11-cv-00917 (12/27/12).   The employee’s refusal was based on her “religious beliefs” in veganism. The court rejected the hospital’s argument that her veganism was merely a “social philosophy or dietary preference.”  According to the court, it was plausible the employee could show that she held her belief in veganism with the same sincerity as traditional religious beliefs.  However, this case is far from over.  The court noted that its ruling on the motion to dismiss “in no way addresses what it anticipates as the hospital’s justification for its termination of the employee — the safety of patients at Children’s Hospital.”

Not all refusals to get a flu shot are based on medical or religious reasons.  A hospital in northern Indiana fired seven employees who refused to get flu shots.  One oncology nurse who was fired said it was “a personal thing.”  The nurse said she gets other vaccinations but it should be her choice whether she gets the flu vaccine.  She said she opposes “the injustice of being forced to put something in [her] body.”  Absent a violation of applicable state law, it is doubtful this employee would have a claim against the hospital for her termination.

Considerations in Creating a Flu Vaccination Policy

Current CDC guidelines do not require hospitals to mandate flu vaccination in any form; the CDC recommends active encouragement of employees to get a flu shot.  However, some hospitals believe it is appropriate to do more to try to protect vulnerable patients from catching the flu in the hospital and then suffering severe health consequences.  These hospitals mandate that at least some groups of employees must be vaccinated.  ”

Terminating or taking other adverse action against an employee who cannot get the vaccine because of a disability (as defined in the Americans with Disabilities Act and/or applicable state law) exposes a hospital to meaningful risk of a discrimination lawsuit.  The same is true for employees who raise a “religious objection.”

Hospitals should evaluate such refusals on a case-by-case basis and explore possible reasonable accommodations of the employees’ refusal to get vaccinated, and the policy should so inform employees. Possible reasonable accommodations could be exempting the employee from the policy entirely, transferring the employee to another position temporarily (until the flu threat ends as determined by local health officials) or permitting the employee to wear a mask when in proximity to patients and coworkers.  From my perspective as a former hospital board chairman, this approach presents a balancing of the hospital’s interest in protecting patients from flu exposure while protecting the legal rights of certain employees who decline to get vaccinated.  In the final analysis, many hospitals believe that risk of harm to patients may trump an individual’s right to refuse when flu epidemics are declared.

©2014 Drinker Biddle & Reath LLP. All Rights Reserved

About the Author

Partner

Mark D. Nelson is a partner in the Labor & Employment Practice Group. Mark has represented management in labor relations and employment discrimination law for 25 years. He has extensive experience representing employers in a wide variety of industries in labor matters, including union avoidance, union organizing campaigns, labor disputes and unfair labor practice proceedings.

Mark also has considerable experience representing employers in arbitration hearings on issues such as discharge, discipline, contract interpretation and management rights. He has...

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