Hospital system temporarily blocked from placing workers with religious exemptions to vaccine mandate on unpaid leave

Hospital system temporarily blocked from placing workers with religious exemptions to vaccine mandate on unpaid leave
© Associated Press - Lynne Sladky

A federal judge in Chicago has temporarily blocked a hospital system from placing workers who were granted religious exemptions for getting the COVID-19 vaccine on unpaid leave.

Fourteen employees of the Chicago-area hospital system filed a lawsuit against the hospital system last month, contending that it was discriminating against them by making them decide between their religious beliefs and maintaining their jobs.

The employees, who were named as Jane Does in the lawsuit, were allowed the exemptions by the hospital system, but were then told they would be forced to take a leave of absence because it was “unnecessarily risky” to have unvaccinated individuals in facilities, according to The Chicago Tribune.

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That arrangement would make them utilize their remaining paid time off before facing termination by the end of the year if they maintained their opposition to the vaccine. The deadline to get vaccinated was Sunday.

The plaintiffs hope to attain class-action status for the lawsuit.

U.S. District Judge John Kness issued a temporary restraining order against the hospital system on Friday, the Tribune reported.

“They can’t be fired and they can’t be placed on what is effectively, in my mind, unpaid leave,” Kness said in his ruling, according to the Tribune.

“The hospital’s going to have to keep paying them. If you wish to require them to show up to work and use PPE and go through testing because you need the help and you don’t want to pay them to be off site, that’s up to the hospital,” he added.

Kness did not, however, weigh in on if the lawsuit will receive class-action status.

When reached for comment, NorthShore told The Hill that it cannot comment on pending litigation. It did, however, provide a statement that in part underscored the importance of vaccination, citing “unique challenges” presented by COVID-19.

“We also understand that getting vaccinated may be a difficult decision for some of our team members. We value their committed service and respect their beliefs. However, COVID-19 has presented unique challenges that continue to threaten our communities and therefore we must prioritize the safety of our patients and team members in support of our broader mission,” the hospital system wrote.

“As healthcare workers, we’re entrusted to provide the safest, most effective patient care possible,” it added.

Horatio Mihet, a lawyer representing the plaintiffs, told the Tribune that the unvaccinated employees should be allowed to continue working while wearing personal protective equipment and getting tested weekly. He said mandating them to get vaccinated would hurt their career and be an infringement of their religious views.

“When you condition someone’s livelihood on a choice or a decision that they have to make, that is the definition of coercion,” Mihet told the newspaper.

The Hill reached out to Liberty Counsel, a Christian ministry that pushes for religious rights which filed the lawsuit on behalf of the employees, for comment.

The plaintiffs who filed the lawsuit include nurses, a pharmacy technician and a senior application analyst. For some of them, their opposition rests in disapproval of the vaccines’ link to aborted fetuses.

While the three vaccines that are authorized in the U.S. do not have any fetal cells, cell lines from two abortions that were performed in the last century were used to test and develop the shots.

The hospital system announced in August that it would require that all its employees be vaccinated against COVID-19 by the end of October, according to the Tribune. A majority of the roughly 700 requests for exemptions were reportedly granted.

NorthShore told The Hill that the “vast majority” of its 17,000 team members are vaccinated.

The lawsuit was filed in the ​​U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois last month.