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Company to Union: Get a Shot or Get Fired

According to the Centers for Disease Control, 51.7 percent of Minnesotans got a flu vaccine last year. (Nat'l. Institutes of Health)
According to the Centers for Disease Control, 51.7 percent of Minnesotans got a flu vaccine last year. (Nat'l. Institutes of Health)
October 30, 2017

ST. PAUL, Minn. – For the first time, Essentia Health, which has 44 clinics in Minnesota, is requiring its employees, vendors and volunteers to get flu shots or lose their jobs.

The United Steel Workers union represents 2,000 of those workers, and said the policy would be a violation of their contract and its members' civil rights. The union's lawyer, Justin Cummins, said Essentia hasn't been willing to bargain or compromise.

"There are employees who are being forced to submit to the vaccination who have no patient contact whatsoever because, for example, they work from home or they otherwise work remotely,” Cummins said.

Essentia said it is requiring flu shots to protect patients.

The company has until Wednesday to file its response to the lawsuit. If there is no agreement before Nov. 7, a federal judge will decide whether to stop the company from implementing the policy.

Dr. Rajesh Prabhu, an infectious disease specialist at Essentia, said Minnesota health care workers get vaccinated at a lower rate than health care workers in other states, and that's why Essentia decided a mandate was necessary.

"Unfortunately, Minnesota ranks 44th out of 50 states in influenza vaccine among health care personnel,” Prabhu said. "The average influenza vaccination rate is only 81.4 percent."

Prabhu said where flu shots are mandatory, the vaccination rate tops 90 percent.

But some people don't immunize for religious reasons; others because they're worried about potential health problems associated with some vaccines, although those risks are reported to be extremely small. The National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program may provide financial assistance for individuals found to have been injured by a vaccine covered by its program.

The union argued the states with the highest health care worker vaccination rates have state laws requiring them to get shots. In Minnesota, there is no such law, and Cummins contended Essentia is wrong to impose the policy.

"The employer does not seem willing to consider less invasive alternatives,” he said. "And in other facilities, those who do not receive vaccinations will wear a face mask when they're dealing with patients directly."

Essentia has said employees who do not get flu shots will be fired on Nov. 20.

Find CDC information on vaccinations among health care professionals here.

Laurie Stern, Public News Service - MN