Employees with religious or medical exemptions can still work at NCH Healthcare System despite the coronavirus vaccine policy, but those we spoke to are not happy about how they’re perceived.
Unvaccinated employees are being required to reveal their vaccination status to others. Three nurses we spoke to have collectively put in close to 65 years at NCH. But all of that hard work almost came to a stop when the hospital system announced its vaccination policy.
“I was almost in disbelief,” Nurse Jacqueline Donovan said. “I was like, ‘No, they’re just rumors,’ and it was kind of a slap to the face.”
“I’ve been here for 35 years, and I’m, you know, planning on retiring a few years,” Nurse Mary Beth said. “I just want to do my job and take care of my patients. That’s all I want to do, and I feel like I have a right to choose what I want to put in my body.”
The nurses were able to get religious exemption. It’s one they had to fight for, ne they eventually got approved and one that will now be on display.
“So an HR person came to me with a badge and said to me, ‘Here’s your new badge,’” Nurse Jackie Chuck said. “And I said to her, ‘What does the blue line stand for? And she said unvaccinated.’ And I looked at her and I said, ‘Do you realize this is a HIPAA violation?’ This is my medical records on display on my badge.”
The nurses were told they had to get a new badge with the blue line on it, and they all received a letter saying, “Failure to do so will result in administrative leave without rights to a fair hearing.”
“So if someone sees a person with the blue line on their badge without an N95 masks, you can be terminated on the spot,” Donovan said.
“It’s like, well, we gave you the religious exemption? Now we’re going to be pointing you out at every turn you go, and it’s wrong,” Chuck said. “And it creates a very uncomfortable, hostile environment.”
NCH said its vaccine mandate policy complies fully with federal law.
The nurses we spoke to are no longer eligible for a 10% raise that vaccinated employees are eligible for. NCH said that pay hike was a short increase to encourage staff to get vaccinated.
We spoke to Attorney Matthew Heinle, the general counsel for NCH. We asked him about the nurses claims about HIPAA violations related to the new badges.
“The federal law actually allows us to have identifying material for employees that does not scream out to the public that this is a vaccinated person or an unvaccinated person,” Heinle said. “It’s subtle in terms that it’s one blue stripe on the badge and what that does is allows us to monitor whether the employees who are approved to be unvaccinated due to medical or religious reasons wear an N95 mask at all times. Otherwise, we would not be able to monitor who is vaccinated and who is not vaccinated.”
We asked the nurses if they are worried about repercussions.
“I’m not,” Chuck said. “I think we need to speak up. And because if we don’t speak up, they want to silence us.”
“Yeah, I think, you know, we’ve watched a handful of our coworkers receive the vaccine, and a lot of them didn’t want to, but they have families to feed, and they didn’t really have a choice. And it sucks for those people,” Donovan said. “How could you make someone choose between their beliefs and their job to feed their family?”