Nurses facing being fired from their Illinois hospital are suing their employer for refusing to grant them exemptions from the COVID-19 vaccine mandate, a move they claim violates state law.
Last month, Riverside Healthcare in Kankakee, Illinois, told all employees who filed for exemptions to the hospital’s vaccine mandate that their requests had been denied, saying that the health care system could not have unvaccinated employees caring for patients.
“Based on our review of your declination request and our COVID Vaccination Program Policy, your request has been denied. Although your religious or strongly held belief may otherwise qualify for an exemption, Riverside has decided to deny your request because you are in a patient-facing position,” the health care system’s letter stated, according to the Daily Journal.
“We take all requests very seriously and respect the time you invested to submit it,” Riverside said, adding that employees who do not want the vaccine could apply for non-patient-facing positions.
On Wednesday, six nurses at Riverside who filed for exemptions and were told they would be fired for refusing the vaccine filed a lawsuit in Circuit Court for the Twenty-First Circuit in Kankakee County.
Riverside’s Kankakee hospital has 300 beds and more than 3,000 employees. Riverside’s most recent available vaccination rate was only 54% at the end of August, the Daily Journal said.
Attorneys for the nurses claim the health care system’s “blanket denial of conscience exemptions” to the vaccine mandate violates the Illinois Health Care Right of Conscience Act.
“These nurses worked throughout the pandemic, putting their lives and their families’ lives on the line. They were celebrated as ‘essential workers’ and ‘heroes’ for their courage – and rightly so,” said Daniel Suhr, managing attorney at the Liberty Justice Center, which is representing the nurses.
“And now, 20 months into the pandemic, Riverside Healthcare is showing them the door unless they violate their religious beliefs and their conscience,” Suhr added. “This is a ruthless overreach aimed at coercing front line workers to do something they sincerely believe is wrong. These nurses know the virus better than anyone and are making a deeply personal, individual choice that should be respected. Not only is that the right thing to do, but it’s Illinois law.”
This week, the administration of Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker made it clear that it wants to prevent people from citing the Health Care Right of Conscience Act for religious-based vaccine exemptions.
“The Health Care Right of Conscience Act was never intended to allow people to avoid public health guidance during a global pandemic. The administration supports efforts to clarify the law, so it cannot be misinterpreted by fringe elements,” Emily Bittner, Pritzker’s deputy chief of staff, said in a statement.
One of the six nurses was already fired last month. Amy Memenga worked for Riverside for over 25 years before she was fired over the vaccine mandate.
Another nurse, Neelie Panozzo, has been serving patients for over 24 years, but was told she will be fired at the end of the month along with four of the other Riverside nurses who filed the lawsuit.
“I have dedicated my life to living out my faith by serving my patients,” Panozzo said, according to a press release from the Liberty Justice Center.
“I believe I am called to love and serve my patients, especially those who are frail and vulnerable. I am also following my faith’s teachings when I say I cannot accept this vaccine. I am ashamed that Riverside will not respect my sincere beliefs and instead insists on firing all of its employees who sought conscience protections,” she said.
Opposition to vaccine mandates for health care workers has raised legal questions in other states as well.
Earlier this week, a judge ruled that New York State health officials cannot force employers to deny health care workers religious exemptions to the vaccine mandate.
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