NorthShore University HealthSystem has agreed to pay $10.3 million to settle a lawsuit brought by employees who alleged the hospital system wouldn’t let them keep their jobs after they objected to getting COVID-19 vaccines for religious reasons.
Fourteen workers — including nurses, a pharmacy technician and a senior application analyst all named anonymously in the lawsuit — filed a lawsuit in October alleging NorthShore refused to grant them true exemptions from the mandate that all its workers get vaccinated.
NorthShore is not admitting to any wrongdoing as part of the proposed settlement agreement, which was filed Friday in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois. The agreement must still be approved by a judge.
As part of the settlement, NorthShore is agreeing to rehire workers who were fired for refusing to get vaccinated for religious reasons.
NorthShore, like other hospital systems, will still require its workers to be vaccinated against COVID-19, but, as part of the settlement, it is changing its exemption policy. Moving forward, it will review individual workers’ requests for religious exemptions, and if those exemptions are approved, NorthShore will work to accommodate them, regardless of their positions.
The workers had alleged that, at one point, NorthShore was denying almost all exemption requests and, when it began approving them, was telling employees they’d have to work remotely. Many jobs that involve direct patient care cannot be done remotely.
“We continue to support systemwide, evidence-based vaccination requirements for everyone who works at NorthShore — Edward-Elmhurst Health and thank our team members for helping to keep our communities safe,” NorthShore said in a statement Monday.
The Liberty Counsel, the organization representing the workers, says the agreement is the first class action settlement against a private employer involving a COVID-19 vaccine mandate in the country. The Liberty Counsel describes itself as a Christian ministry that advocates for religious freedom
“It should send shock waves or a wake-up call, at least, to employers to follow the law under Title VII,” said Mat Staver, founder and chairman of the Liberty Counsel, referring to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin. “A number of employers … have these blanket policies to get the COVID vaccine or be terminated without taking into consideration individual religious exemption requests.”
NorthShore estimates that about 523 of its workers were denied religious exemptions to the vaccine mandate between July 1, 2021, and Jan. 1 of this year, according to the proposed settlement agreement. Of those 523, about 204 got the vaccines after they were denied exemptions and 269 were terminated or resigned.
Lawyers representing NorthShore and the workers asked the court to allow the settlement to apply to all NorthShore workers who were fired or resigned or who got vaccines because they were denied religious exemptions.
If the settlement agreement and request for it to cover more than 500 workers are approved, workers who were fired or resigned could receive about $25,000 each, and employees who got vaccines after their religious exemption requests were denied could get about $3,000 each, according to the Liberty Counsel. The 13 lead plaintiffs in the lawsuit would get an additional $20,000 each. One of the original plaintiffs is no longer part of the case because her exemption and accommodation request was approved.
In some cases, the workers said they didn’t want the vaccines because of their links to aborted fetuses. None of the COVID-19 vaccines in the U.S. contains fetal cells. But cell lines derived from two abortions, performed decades ago, were used in the early testing or development of the vaccines, according to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. Other religious authorities, including the Vatican, have deemed the use of the vaccines morally acceptable.
The workers in the NorthShore case alleged, at one point, that NorthShore said it would deny any exemptions based on “aborted fetal cell lines.” NorthShore later said it would grant many of the exemptions but only allow those seeking them to work remotely, the workers alleged.
The workers said they were willing to be regularly tested for COVID-19, wear masks and report if they were having symptoms, rather than be vaccinated.
Margo Wolf O’Donnell, co-chair of the labor and employment law group at law firm Benesch in Chicago, said the case reinforces the importance of employers reviewing requests for exemptions to vaccine mandates individually.
“If there is a vaccine mandate, it’s important that requests for exemptions, whether they be religious or medical exemption requests, they be considered on a case-by-case basis,” O’Donnell said. “Employers still can have vaccine mandates, I just think they need to be implemented appropriately.”
COVID-19 vaccine mandates for health care workers are still ubiquitous across hospital systems.
In January, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a federal requirement that hospitals across the U.S. have COVID-19 vaccine mandates for their workers, unless those workers are exempt for medical or religious reasons.
Under Equal Employment Opportunity Commission guidelines, employees can ask to be exempted from vaccination requirements because of sincerely held religious beliefs or because of disabilities. But employers don’t have to grant those exemptions if an unvaccinated person would pose a direct threat to others in the workplace, or if accommodating him or her would be an undue burden.
Illinois also still requires health care workers to be vaccinated, but in July, Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s administration relaxed rules about testing for those who were not fully vaccinated.
Up to that point, Illinois health care workers who weren’t fully vaccinated had to be tested weekly for COVID-19. Now, with the exception of workers in long-term care facilities, those workers only have to be tested weekly if they are in high coronavirus transmission counties as determined by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Every county in Illinois is now at high transmission levels.
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