NorthShore University HealthSystem has agreed to pay $10.3 million to settle a lawsuit brought by employees who alleged the hospital system would not allow them to keep their jobs after they objected to receiving COVID-19 vaccines on religious grounds.
Fourteen workers, including nurses, a pharmacy technician and a senior applications analyst, all named anonymously in the lawsuit. sued NorthShore in October alleging that NorthShore refused to grant them real exemptions from the mandate that all of their workers get vaccinated.
NorthShore admits no wrongdoing as part of the proposed settlement agreement, which was filed Friday in the US District Court for the Northern District of Illinois. The deal still needs to be approved by a judge.
As part of the settlement, NorthShore agrees to rehire workers who were fired for refusing to be vaccinated for religious reasons.
NorthShore, like other hospital systems, will continue to require its workers to be vaccinated against COVID-19, but as part of the agreement, it is changing its exemption policy. Going forward, it will review requests for religious exemptions from individual workers, and if those exemptions are approved, NorthShore will work to accommodate them, regardless of their positions.
“We continue to support evidence-based, system-wide vaccination requirements for everyone who works at NorthShore – Edward-Elmhurst Health and thank our team members for helping keep our communities safe,” NorthShore said in a statement. communicated on Monday.
The organization representing the workers hailed the settlement as a “historic and first-of-its-kind class action settlement against a private employer that unlawfully denied hundreds of religious exemption requests for COVID-19 vaccines,” in a press release. The workers are represented by Liberty Counsel, which describes itself as a Christian ministry that advocates for religious liberty.
“The drastic policy change and the substantial monetary relief required by the settlement will bring a strong measure of justice to NorthShore employees who were callously forced to choose between their consciences and their jobs,” said Horatio G. Mihet, vice president of legal affairs. of LibertyCounsel. and lead trial attorney, in the press release. “This agreement should also serve as a strong warning to employers across the country that they cannot refuse to accommodate those with sincere religious objections to forced vaccination mandates.”
NorthShore estimates that about 523 of its workers were denied religious exemptions to the vaccination mandate between July 1, 2021 and January 1 of this year, according to the proposed settlement agreement. Of those 523, about 204 received the shots after exemptions were denied and 269 were fired 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 quit or received vaccinations because they were denied religious exemptions.
If the settlement agreement and the request to cover more than 500 workers are approved, workers who were fired or resigned could receive about $25,000 each, and employees who got vaccinated after their religious exemption requests were denied they could receive around $3,000 each, according to the Liberty Advocate. The 13 lead plaintiffs in the lawsuit would each receive an additional $20,000. One of the original plaintiffs dropped the case because the waiver was approved.
In some cases, workers said they didn’t want the vaccines because of their links to aborted fetuses. None of the COVID-19 vaccines in the US contain fetal cells. But cell lines derived from two abortions, performed decades ago, were used in early testing or development of vaccines, according to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. Other religious authorities, including the Vatican, have deemed the use of vaccines morally acceptable.
Workers on the NorthShore case alleged, at one point, that NorthShore said it would deny any exemption based on “aborted fetal cell lines.” NorthShore later said it would grant many of the waivers but would only allow those seeking them to work remotely, the workers alleged.
Workers said they were willing to get regular COVID-19 tests, wear masks and report if they had symptoms, rather than get vaccinated.
COVID-19 vaccine mandates for healthcare workers remain pervasive across hospital systems.
In January, the US Supreme Court upheld a federal requirement that US hospitals have COVID-19 vaccination mandates for their workers, unless those workers are exempt for medical or other reasons. religious.
Under Equal Employment Opportunity Commission guidelines, employees may request exemptions from immunization requirements due to sincere religious beliefs or disabilities. But employers don’t have to grant those waivers if an unvaccinated person would pose a direct threat to others in the workplace, or if fitting in with him or her would be an undue burden.
Illinois also requires healthcare workers to get vaccinated, but in July Gov. JB Pritzker’s administration relaxed rules about testing for those who were not fully vaccinated.
Until that time, health care workers in Illinois who were not fully vaccinated had to be tested for COVID-19 weekly. Now, with the exception of workers in long-term care facilities, those workers should only be tested weekly if they are in counties with high coronavirus transmission as determined by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.