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Many U.S. employers have implemented a policy that requires their workers to be vaccinated against COVID-19, including several major healthcare systems and hospitals. These policies are in line with the guidance issued by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission last month, which confirmed that U.S. employers are within their rights to require their employees to be vaccinated, with certain exceptions such as on medical or religious grounds.
Houston Methodist Hospital in Texas introduced its vaccine mandate to ensure patients were protected against COVID-19 and set a June 7, 2021 deadline for employees to be vaccinated. While the majority of workers at Houston Methodist Hospital have been or have agreed to receive a COVID-19 vaccine, On Monday June 7, a walkout was staged by a small minority of workers over the vaccine requirements. On Tuesday, the hospital took the decision to suspend 178 workers without pay over their refusal to be inoculated.
A lawsuit was brought by 117 of those workers, with lead plaintiff, Jennifer Bridges, claiming that if she is dismissed for refusing the vaccine it would constitute wrongful termination. Bridges maintains that the vaccines, which have been granted emergency use authorizations by the Food and Drug Administration, are experimental and dangerous. All three of the vaccines covered by the emergency use declarations have undergone clinical trials and a post market study and have been determined to be safe.
On Saturday, U.S. District Judge Lynn N. Hughes in the Southern District of Texas issued a ruling that upheld the hospital’s vaccination requirement. Judge Hughes said the decision to require employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19 was consistent with the hospital’s public policy and rejected claims of the plaintiffs that the vaccines were experimental and dangerous.
“The hospital’s employees are not participants in a human trial,” said Judge Hughes in his ruling. “Methodist is trying to do their business of saving lives without giving [patients] the Covid-19 virus. It is a choice made to keep staff, patients and their families safer.”
The judge explained in the ruling that under Texas law, employers are within their rights to require employees to be vaccinated. There are laws to protect employees against wrongful termination, but in cases such as this, employees would only be protected against termination for refusing to commit an act that carries criminal penalties.
“Our employees and physicians made their decisions for our patients, who are always at the center of everything we do,” said Houston Methodist Hospital Chief Executive, Dr. Marc Bloom in a statement. “We can now put this behind us and continue our focus on unparalleled safety, quality, service and innovation… All our employees have now met the requirements of the vaccine policy and I couldn’t be prouder of them.”
The hospital confirmed that 24,947 employees had been fully vaccinated, 285 workers were not vaccinated due to medical or religious exemptions, and 332 employees were granted deferrals for pregnancy or other reasons.
Once the suspension period expires on June 21, 2021, termination procedures will be implemented for all employees who have still not been vaccinated. The lawyers representing the plaintiffs plan to appeal the ruling.