Minnesota health systems weigh terminations as vaccine mandates loom

For months, the union representing Minnesota nurses has begged the public to wear masks and get vaccinated against COVID-19 to reduce the strain on hospital workers. 

But this month, with vaccine mandates about to take effect for thousands of health care workers across the state, the Minnesota Nurses Association did not announce its support. Instead, the union's board acknowledged its membership wasn't unified for or against mandates.

The lack of unity points to a critical time at Minnesota's health systems, many of which plan to impose vaccine requirements on workers in October – some as early as Friday. Hospitals are treating more patients than at any time since January. Health systems face an existing labor shortage that will worsen if workers leave or get fired over the COVID vaccine.

In response to questions from FOX 9 over the past week, six local health systems said their workforces are between 80 and 96 percent vaccinated. Some hospitals said they will fire employees who don't get a shot by the deadline, while others plan to work through a series of steps first.

The issue added a legal layer Tuesday when nearly 190 Minnesota health care workers filed a federal lawsuit asking a judge to toss out the impending vaccine mandates. The workers said the health systems had not provided alternatives for employees who refuse to get vaccinated.

Most employees are vaccinated

All the major health systems in the Twin Cities Metro have vaccine requirements, though interviews with six of them -- Allina Health, HealthPartners, M Health Fairview, Children's Minnesota, Mayo Clinic and Hennepin Healthcare – reveal differences in how they plan to address employees who refuse a shot.

The six health systems all said the number of workers who will face that decision is dwindling as the deadlines near. The systems self-reported the following vaccination rates:

  • Hennepin Healthcare: 96 percent
  • Mayo Clinic: 85 percent
  • Children's Minnesota: 84 percent
  • Allina Health: 83 percent
  • HealthPartners: 83 percent
  • M Health Fairview: 80 percent

Allina has the earliest deadline – Oct. 1 – but will only fire employees after a series of steps, said Conny Bergerson, a spokeswoman.

Hennepin Healthcare and M Health Fairview said they would terminate workers who aren't vaccinated by Halloween. Children's Minnesota is reviewing accommodation requests and will begin the termination process against employees who don't have an exemption on Nov. 1.

Mayo Clinic has a vaccination requirement but did not say how it would enforce its rules. And HealthPartners is focused on educating unvaccinated employees before its Oct. 30 deadline, said Annelise Heitkamp, a spokeswoman.

Some employees protest

Greg Erickson, the Minneapolis-based attorney who filed the federal suit Tuesday, said the plaintiffs included doctors, nurses and respiratory therapists.

"All the employees are asking for is to do business the exact same way they’ve been doing it for the last 18 months while caring for many COVID patients," he said. 

Courts have thrown out similar lawsuits in other states.

"In general, employees really don’t have much of a leg to stand on in challenging vaccine mandates, and that’s why the suits to date have been unsuccessful," said Jill Hasday, a University of Minnesota employment law professor.

A 1905 U.S. Supreme Court set the precedent for courts upholding employer vaccine mandates over the past century. Susan Ellingstad, an employment law attorney with Lockridge Grindal Nauen in Minneapolis, said employers are allowed to terminate workers who don't comply with a condition of employment. 

The employer must provide a reasonable accommodation for people who disabilities or certain religious beliefs, she said.

"The best approach is to exhaust all of the options before getting to that decision point," Ellingstad said.

In its statement earlier this month, the Minnesota Nurses Association said voluntary vaccination programs were the "the most effective strategy," while adding "all those who can be vaccinated should be." 

President Mary Turner declined an interview for this story. The union represents more than 80 percent of hospital nurses in Minnesota.

Non-legal options best, attorneys say

Ellingstad said she doesn't think the health systems will ultimately fire many employees because most workers will comply. Unvaccinated workers may struggle to find a new job because many health systems are implementing mandates and the federal government will soon require employers with more than 100 people to have a requirement.

"So many (employers) are mandating it that, the more that do it, the fewer options people have to leave and go across the street to work for someone else," she said. 

Employment law experts said there's another interested party often lost in the disagreement between unvaccinated workers and their employers: vaccinated workers.

"The majority of the workplace is vaccinated, and I suspect those vaccinated employees want their colleagues to be vaccinated," Hasday said. "It's not solely the hospital's interests. They're also doing it to protect their own employees."