Health care facilities preparing to pull religious exemptions to vaccine mandate on Monday

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ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WHEC) — Staffed hospital capacity in the Finger Lakes Region is now down to just 8%.

As News10NBC has been reporting, major staffing shortages are crippling the entire local health care system and things are about to go from bad to worse. New York State is disallowing most religious exemptions to the vaccine mandate for health care workers on Monday and our local health systems are bracing for impact.

UR Medicine granted nearly 700 exemptions initially and most were religious.

Rochester Regional Health has not provided a specific number but it’s likely well into the hundreds too. Both health systems say they won’t know for sure how bad the impact is going to be and what departments will be hit hardest until they see how many employees choose to get their first dose of the vaccine before Monday’s deadline.

Emily Duncan is a Registered Nurse who works for Rochester Regional Health. She provides telemedicine triage services for OBGYN patients. Before the pandemic, her job was in a call center but since March 2020 she has been working from home.

On Tuesday, Duncan got an email from HR saying in part, “religious exemptions for health care workers will no longer be allowed as of Monday, Nov. 22…. Rochester Regional Health has no choice but to comply with the requirement.”

The letter went on to provide employees with information about how and where they can get their first dose of the COVID19 vaccine prior to Monday and warns that employees who chose not to do that will be considered to have voluntarily resigned.

Employees at UR Medicine got a similar email on Tuesday.

“I felt very hurt because I have committed a lot to the nursing profession and we are taught to advocate for patients and value personal autonomy and when that is taken away, that’s a red flag,” Duncan told News10NBC.

It turns out, Rochester Regional sent these notifications to everyone with a current exemption but is still trying to make accommodations for folks like Duncan who don’t interact in-person with patients or co-workers.

Under the law, even with the mandate, NYS says facilities should “have a process in place to consider reasonable accommodation requests from covered personnel based on sincerely held religious beliefs.”

“As a practical matter most employers are willing to say look, we’ll take your word that this is sincere, “ explained Jared Cook, an employment attorney at Vahey Law, “they’re just now going to have to focus on, does this impose an undue burden on our business.”

Jennifer Lewke (News10NBC) – What happens legally if these are patient-facing employees and there are no reasonable accommodations that remove them from interacting with patients?

Jared Cook – Well, the law only requires a reasonable accommodation it doesn’t require an employer to provide any accommodation that the employee requests, and if it causes an undue burden, they don’t have to approve it at all.

While there have been a number of injunctions and court hearings surrounding this exemption for health care workers including a request that the case be heard by the Supreme Court, it is believed Monday’s deadline is now firm.

Rochester Regional Health did not respond to questions about how further staffing shortages would impact operations.

A spokeswoman for UR Medicine told News10NBC, “hospitals are working to minimize potential impacts on patient care after Nov. 22. Leading up to Monday’s deadline, clinical leaders are meeting frequently to discuss staffing levels and the ability to provide elective care, just as they did prior to Sept. 27. Given previously existing staffing shortages, Strong Memorial Hospital continues to carefully evaluate elective surgeries, postponing some if they require an inpatient stay.”

On Tuesday, News10NBC Investigative Reporter Jennifer Lewke asked Gov. Kathy Hochul about what she was doing to help facilities with staffing struggles.

On Wednesday, a spokesperson for the governor sent News10NBC the following statement:

“Governor Hochul has taken bold action to protect the health of all New Yorkers and will continue to do everything in her power to keep New Yorkers safe. The vaccine is safe and effective, and Governor Hochul encourages all who are not vaccinated to get the vaccine now to protect themselves, their families and their patients. The Department of Health will continue working with facilities like UR Medicine and Rochester Regional to monitor, provide guidance and help troubleshoot staffing concerns.”