Texas hospital workers protest a mandatory vaccine policy
By Jesús Jiménez and Niraj Chokshi
Dozens of staff members at a Houston-area hospital protested Monday night against a policy that requires employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19.
The hospital, Houston Methodist, had told employees that they had to be vaccinated by Monday. Last month, 117 Houston Methodist employees filed a lawsuit against their employer over the vaccine policy.
While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends health care workers get a flu shot, and some hospital systems require it, few companies have required COVID-19 shots, despite federal government guidance that says employers can mandate vaccines for on-site workers.
Executives, lawyers and consultants who advise companies say that many of them remain hesitant because of a long list of legal considerations the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission says must be followed before mandating vaccinations. Some companies say they are wary of setting mandates until the vaccines have received full approval by the Food and Drug Administration, which has granted emergency use authorization.
Jennifer Bridges, a nurse who led the Houston Methodist protest, has cited the lack of full FDA approval for the shots as a reason she won’t get vaccinated.
Vaccine hesitancy has been high among frontline health care workers: Surveys showed that nearly half remained unvaccinated as of mid-March, despite being among the first to become eligible for the shots in December. A March 2021 survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that health care workers had concerns about the vaccines’ newness and their possible side effects, both of which are common reasons for waiting to be vaccinated.
By Monday evening, dozens of Houston Methodist employees had gathered outside the hospital system’s location in Baytown, Texas, holding signs that read “VAXX IS VENOM” and “Don’t Lose Sight Of Our Rights.”
“If we don’t stop this now and do some kind of change, everybody’s just going to topple,” Bridges told local media covering the protest. “It’s going to create a domino effect. Everybody across the nation is going to be forced to get things into their body that they don’t want and that’s not right.”
Those who did not meet the hospital’s vaccination deadline Monday will be placed on a two-week unpaid suspension. If they still do not meet the hospital’s vaccine requirements by June 21, Houston Methodist will “initiate the employee termination process.”
The workers’ lawsuit accuses the hospital of “forcing its employees to be human ‘guinea pigs’ as a condition for continued employment.”
In a statement, Houston Methodist said that by Monday nearly 100% of its 26,000 employees had complied with the vaccine policy. The hospital said it was aware that some employees who had not met the vaccine requirements planned to protest Monday, and that they had invited other employees to join them.
“We fully support the right of our employees to peacefully gather on their own time, but it is unacceptable to even suggest they abandon their patients to participate in this activity,” the hospital said. “We have faith that our employees will continue putting our patients first. It is unfortunate that today’s milestone of Houston Methodist becoming the safest hospital system in the country is being overshadowed by a few disgruntled employees.”
On Monday, Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas signed a law prohibiting businesses or government entities in the state from requiring vaccine passports, or digital proof of vaccination, joining states such as Florida and Arkansas. It’s unclear how or if the new law will affect employer mandates like Houston Methodist’s.
In some industries, including aviation, employers are taking a middle-ground approach. Delta Air Lines, which is distributing vaccines out of its flight museum in Atlanta, said in May that it would strongly encourage current employees to get vaccinated and require it for new hires.
United Airlines, after considering a blanket mandate, said last week that it would require anyone hired in the United States after June 15 to provide proof of vaccination no later than a week after starting. Exceptions may be made for those who have medical or religious reasons for not getting vaccinated, the company added.