California still firing vaccine-resistant health workers

California still firing vaccine-resistant health workers

Health care providers across California are closing in on firing possibly hundreds of workers who have let the clock tick down on a requirement to get vaccinated against COVID-19.

The dismissals come in the Golden State despite a federal judge late Tuesday blocking — at least temporarily — the Biden administration’s attempts to require health care workers nationwide to be vaccinated by January.

That’s because California has its own vaccination order, issued earlier this year, applying to workers at health care facilities — from hospitals to nursing homes and clinics to dialysis centers. The order doesn’t just cover nurses and doctors but security guards, housekeeping staff and other workers.

Other states and health care companies have also issued mandates — setting an early precedent in the push to curb the spread of the deadly virus. But while many health care experts, patient advocates and unions have voiced their support, the mandates have proven controversial in many states as health care providers contend with staffing shortages and worker burnout as the pandemic heads toward its second winter.

When California’s deadline kicked in at the end of September, some of California’s biggest health care providers, including Kaiser Permanente and Sutter Health, suspended workers, largely without pay, who hadn’t complied with the vaccine mandate. But most gave their workers weeks to comply before firing them.

Kaiser, which employs more than 82,000 people in Northern California, announced Tuesday on the eve of what was supposed to be its Dec. 1 get-jabbed-or-lose-your-job deadline that it was giving holdouts another temporary reprieve.

Employees whose requests for exemptions were denied on or before Nov. 7 face termination starting on Dec. 8 if they don’t comply, and those with requests denied after Nov. 7 will not be terminated until at least Jan. 10.

Kaiser did not explain the reason for pushing back the deadline and would not provide the number of people who could be terminated. In October, Kaiser said it had suspended more than 2,000 workers across the country.

Some places, such as Santa Clara Valley Medical Center, began terminating unvaccinated workers within days of the state’s Sept. 30 deadline.

Sutter Health, which said in early October that it had fewer than 200 employees on unpaid leave and would give them until Oct. 15 to comply, would say only that “very few” people had ultimately been terminated and that “several” holdouts had gotten vaccinated and returned to work.

John Muir Health in Contra Costa County put about 60 people on leave and gave them until Oct. 22 to comply.

“We did end up with 19 terminations of employees who chose not to get vaccinated and meet the mandate,” spokesman Ben Drew said.

Those people included “four medical assistants, two nurses and one licensed vocational nurse, two physical therapy assistants, two unit secretaries and people who were in food services, the lift team, a transporter, radiology and a couple of other departments,” Drew added.

But it does appear that the mandate convinced some workers who hadn’t been swayed by science or even cash incentives to get jabbed.

While some went on a leave of absence, “most of the other 40 people did end up getting vaccinated,” Drew said.

That’s not unusual. Vaccine mandates across the country have prompted hesitant workers to get inoculated rather than lose their livelihood. According to an October survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation, a little more than a third of unvaccinated workers said they would leave their jobs if they were forced to get a vaccine or undergo weekly testing. But just 5% say they’ve actually done so.

At Stanford Medicine’s hospitals, unvaccinated employees who don’t have an approved accommodation, such as medical or religious reasons for remaining unvaccinated, can stay on unpaid administrative leave for up to six months. But in the two months that have elapsed since the order took effect, about half of the fewer than 100 employees in that position “have since come into compliance and returned to work,” a spokesperson said.

In October, Kaiser said more than 92% of its employees had been vaccinated. On Tuesday, the Oakland-based HMO said, “We are pleased that more than 98% of employees have provided proof of vaccination or requested an exemption. We are working with those employees who have been placed on unpaid administrative leave or otherwise prevented from working due to noncompliance with the vaccination policy to ensure they know what they need to do to become compliant.”

At the San Francisco Campus for Jewish Living, one of the largest nursing homes in the Bay Area, “we are not letting anyone go for this reason,” a spokesperson said. “Our staff is 99% vaccinated on campus. The 1% have legitimate medical reasons for passing on the vaccine, but have frequent testing to keep everyone safe.”