Shot Out

Covid-19 vaccines stored in a freezer at CHOMP are available but a small percentage of employees are holdouts. A group denied religious exemptions say they’re suing.

As of 12:01am on Friday, Oct. 1, a small cadre of Montage Health employees were officially on the outs with their employer after defiantly refusing to be vaccinated against Covid-19 by Sept. 30.

Three doctors left the organization, and five employees are believed to have resigned due to the mandate, according to a Montage spokesperson. For 59 unvaccinated employees still in Montage’s employ, they are on a forced unpaid six-month leave. If they do not get vaccinated they will be terminated and their positions are protected for only three months.

Montage is now facing a possible lawsuit by a group of employees who were denied religious exemptions and are on unpaid leave. A group organizer says they retained Orange County law firm Watkins & Letofsky, which is also representing a group of Los Angeles police officers against the city of Los Angeles for its vaccine mandate. The Montage employees plan to sue as soon as Oct. 15.

The decision to sue came “because we have nothing left,” said Elisabeth Sims, a nurse with Montage’s hospital, Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula, on a conservative YouTube talk show on Oct. 7. “We’ve tried negotiating with our hospital, we’ve tried alternate resources and ultimately we’re left with no choice but litigation.”

Sims says by phone that the suit will focus on denying religious exemptions without reasonable accommodations. “A reasonable accommodation is not a six-month forced leave of absence,” she says. She’s currently on maternity leave with a due date of Nov. 1, but says it’s unclear what will happen when her leave is over. “I’m not anti-vax,” she says, adding she is vaccinated against other diseases. “It’s really much less about the vaccine as it is about bodily autonomy. I don’t believe you should be coerced with your livelihood and your job.”

When Montage announced its vaccination mandate on Aug. 3, the nonprofit was leaning on other cases in the U.S. where employees sued and failed, including a case against Houston Methodist Hospital brought by 117 employees. A federal judge threw out the lawsuit on June 12, stating that hospitals had the right to protect patients against the Covid-19 virus. While employers have prevailed in other cases thus far, in recent weeks new lawsuits have been filed in other states that focus solely on denials of religious exemptions, a new tactic being closely watched by legal experts.

In August, a little over 87 percent of Montage’s 2,800 employees were vaccinated. The number as of Oct. 1 is 97.5 percent, with 100 percent of in-person employees vaccinated. Six employees with exemptions are working remotely. Some employees with exemptions who cannot work remotely were granted six-month leave. Six employees who did not ask for an exemption and were not fully vaccinated by Oct. 1 were suspended; two of the six are in the process of completing their vaccinations.

At Salinas Valley Memorial Hospital, 96.7 percent of staff is vaccinated; at Natividad, it’s 94 percent. Like Montage, none of the unvaccinated employees hospitals are working in-person. Natividad, the county hospital, seeks to place unvaccinated employees elsewhere in other county departments. If no positions can be found, the employees are placed on an unpaid leave of absence.

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