Provider to pay $300,000 to settle claims it fired employees over vaccination requirement

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A Pennsylvania healthcare provider has agreed to pay $300,000 in back pay and damages to six employees who claim they were denied a religious exemption from the facility's mandatory vaccination policy and ultimately fired.

Saint Vincent Health Center in Erie, PA, implemented a mandatory seasonal flu vaccination requirement for its employees in late 2013. The policy stated that workers who received an exemption for medical or religious reasons could instead wear a face mask while interacting with patients during flu season.

A lawsuit from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission said that from October 2013 through January 2014, six employees requested religious exemptions from the policy and were denied. During that same time period Saint Vincent allegedly granted 14 vaccination exemptions based on medical reasons while denying all those based on religious beliefs, the EEOC said late December.

When the six employees who requested the religious exemption continued to refuse the vaccine they were fired, the EEOC said.

In a statement to McKnight's, spokesman Daniel Laurent said Saint Vincent “respectfully” disagrees with the EEOC's claims, and reached the settlement in order to avoid the costs and burden of further litigation.

“We continue to believe that annual vaccination for influenza among healthcare professionals is in the best interests of our patients and our employees, and we will continue to provide easy access to vaccinations at Saint Vincent and across our organization for the many employees who voluntarily receive them each year,” the statement reads.

In addition to paying $300,000 and reinstating the fired employees, Saint Vincent must grant religious exemptions to its vaccination policy if it continues to be a condition of employment, unless an exemption “poses an undue hardship on the health center's operation,” the EEOC said. The health center must also notify employees of their right to request an exemption, and adhere to the definition of “religion” created by Title VII.