RRH, URMC send letters to staff saying they’ll be terminated if unvaccinated

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ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WHEC) — Rochester-area hospitals are moving forward with plans to require all healthcare workers to be vaccinated against COVID-19.

It’s a statewide mandate announced by former Gov. Andrew Cuomo last month, and it doesn’t just apply to hospitals. It applies to all medical facilities, like nursing homes, urgent care facilities, doctor’s offices, etc., and it applies to anyone entering a medical facility for work.

News10NBC obtained copies of letters sent to Rochester Regional Health and University of Rochester Medical Center employees this week.

In the communication sent to RRH staff, it says:

“The vaccine mandate applies to all employees and affiliated personnel of Rochester Regional Health, including members of the Medical Staff, vendors, consultants, students, volunteers and contract labor. In order to be compliant, you must receive your first vaccine dose no later than September 27.”

Here’s what the letter says will happen if an employee fails to get their first dose before Sept. 27:

“Any RRH employee who has not provided documentation of their first dose by September 27, 2021 and has not been granted a medical exemption and related accommodation, will not be permitted to work and will be placed on an unpaid leave for five (5) days. Any RRH employee who does not provide documentation of their first dose within that five (5) day period will be terminated and will not be entitled to unemployment benefits or payout of accrued vacation.”

There have been some questions about the legality of not allowing healthcare workers to collect unemployment benefits if they lose their job for being unvaccinated. So, News10NBC’s Emily Putnam spoke with Kim Harding, a local labor and employment attorney from Nixon Peabody law firm.

Harding explains that employers like URMC and RRH are required by the New York State Department of Health to mandate the COVID-19 vaccine for all employees, thus making it company policy, and if an employee chooses not to get the vaccine they are voluntarily violating company policy.

"Voluntary-ness in this context really means that you are free to choose whether to get the vaccine or not, that remains your decision,” Harding said. “However, you have to be subject to the consequences of that decision."

In this case, the “consequences” would be termination of employment and not being eligible for unemployment benefits.

"The courts have held that you’re still free to choose whether to get the vaccine, you just need to work somewhere else if that’s the case, so it’s your choice to work for an employer that does not have a vaccine mandate," Harding said.

Emily Putnam: Does a health care worker who loses their job for not being vaccinated have any legal grounds to stand on?

Kim Harding: No. I don’t like to speak so definitively, but absent a medical or religious exemption, there’s no entitlement to your job.