A Pennsylvania health care provider agreed to settle with six of its former employees who alleged they were fired because they were denied a religious exemption from the company’s policy that required mandatory vaccination. The company agreed to pay $300,000, which will cover back pay and damages to the half dozen workers.
The company required workers to receive a mandatory flu vaccine, starting in 2013. The policy spelled out that workers who declined to receive the vaccine, either due to medical reasons or for religious purposes, could opt to wear a face mask instead while interacting with patients throughout the season when flu is the most prevalent.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) filed an employment lawsuit on their behalf, asserting that for the 2013-2014 flu season, the workers in question asked for a religious exemption to the policy, and yet were denied their request. Meanwhile, the facility did grant 13 vaccination exemptions that were requested by others on the basis of medical issues.
Religious discrimination bias is against the law, per Title VII, which provides broad protections. This case shows employees do have leverage in these cases, even when it comes to the issue of vaccinations – which can be a contentious one.
The press release from the EEOC doesn’t detail the religious beliefs of the workers, and for legal purposes, it doesn’t matter so long as they are sincerely held. And of course, health care providers, more than some other facilities, have a duty to provide a safe environment to patients, which involves minimizing the risk of exposure to infectious and potentially dangerous diseases. But given that there was an alternative/ exemption offered to other employees, the hospital could not make the argument that it was necessary for all employees to undergo the vaccine if their reason for declination was a protected one.
When these workers continued to refuse to receive the vaccine based on their religious beliefs, the hospital terminated them.
The religious discrimination federal lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court.
Now, in addition to the money the plaintiffs will receive, they are also being offered reinstatement to their previous jobs. On top of that, the hospital has agreed to:
- Stipulate that if it chooses in the future to require workers to receive the flue vaccine as a condition of their employment, exemptions have to be granted to all workers whose sincerely held religious beliefs prevent them from receiving it. The only exception would be if the hospital can show it would pose an undue hardship on the facilities’ operation.
- The facility has to inform workers of their right to ask for religious exemptions, and there need to be established procedures for anyone considering asking for such accommodations.
- The hospital also has to provide training to its top personnel on how to maintain reasonable accommodation policies and how to handle such requests.
The consent agreement also notes that the hospital can’t require the employee requesting a religious objection to the flue vaccine be any endorsed teaching or official tenant of a particular religion or denomination, and neither is the hospital allowed to decide a religious belief or observance to be inaccurate, unfounded, illogical, unreasonable or inconsistent with the view of the hospital. The only reason the hospital can deny a religious exemption for this purpose would be when there is an undue hardship.
Contact the employment attorneys at Nassiri Law Group, practicing in Orange County, Riverside and Los Angeles. Call 949.375.4734.
Saint Vincent Health Center To Pay $300,000 To Settle EEOC Religious Accommodation Lawsuit, Dec. 23, 2016, U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission
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