Federal government sues provider after workers are fired for seeking religious exemption to flu shot

A North Carolina-based healthcare provider has been hit with a lawsuit from the federal government for allegedly firing three employees who asked for a religious exemption from the company's mandatory flu shot policy.

Mission Hospital, Inc., a hospital and health system based in Asheville, NC, requires its hospital employees to receive a flu shot no later than December each year, according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which filed the suit on Thursday.

Mission employees may ask for an exemption to the vaccination policy based on religious beliefs, but that request must be made by September 1 or it may be denied. At least three employees requested exemptions after the deadline and were denied. Mission then fired those employees, including one who was suspended without pay prior to her termination, according to the EEOC.

Mission's flu vaccination policy and religious exemption is similar to “so many other healthcare providers'” policies, and is enforced to “protect our patients and keep our caregivers and physicians well,” said Rowena Buffett Timms, senior vice president of government and community relations, in a statement to McKnight's.

The EEOC's lawsuit alleges that Mission's “arbitrary deadline” for the flu shot exemption request violates federal law by not offering a “reasonable accommodation for an employee's sincerely held religious beliefs.”

"Under federal law, employers must attempt a fair balance between an employee's right to practice his or her religion and the operation of their business," wrote Lynette A. Barnes, regional attorney for EEOC's Charlotte District Office, in a press release. “An arbitrary deadline does not protect an employer from its obligation to provide a religious accommodation.”

The EEOC's lawsuit seeks back pay, compensatory damages, punitive damages and reinstatement for the fired employees.

“Mission Health plans to vigorously defend its flu policy, firm in our belief that our actions were consistent with best clinical practices, our policies, the rights of our employees and our mission to put the safety of our patients, our caregivers and our community above all,” Timms said.

A recent study found that state laws mandating flu shots for healthcare workers can help boost overall vaccinations rates, but other research shows long-term care workers to be the most lax about getting vaccinated.