Two weeks after being suspended for refusing to comply with Houston Methodist's mandatory COVID-19 policy, 153 employees have either voluntarily resigned or been terminated by the health system, a Houston Methodist spokesperson said.
The firings came down on June 22, but spared 25 suspended employees who became compliant with the vaccination policy during the two-week period, the spokesperson said. Those employees returned to work one day after they became compliant.
Houston Methodist was the first major provider organization in the country to announce its mandatory policy back in late March. At the time, Houston Methodist set an April 15 deadline for its managers and a June 7 cutoff for the rest of its employees that eventually resulted in 178 two-week suspensions.
The policy also spurred a lawsuit from 117 Houston Methodist employees. Filed in late May, the suit argued that the system was “forcing its employees to be human ‘guinea pigs’ as a condition for continued employment.” Many of these employees participated in organized demonstrations against the system and its mandatory vaccine policy over the past several weeks.
In a five-page ruling filed on June 12, a federal judge dismissed the lawsuit and said that Houston Methodist's policy does not conflict with any laws.
Requiring the vaccination does not constitute coercion because employees who refuse to receive the injection can seek employment elsewhere, U.S. District Judge Lynn Hughes wrote in the ruling. Further, the lawsuit's claims that currently-available COVID-19 vaccines are experimental were both "false" and "irrelevant" when determining wrongful termination, the judge wrote.
"Methodist is trying to do their business of saving lives without giving them the COVID-19 virus," Hughes wrote. "It is a choice made to keep staff, patients and their families safe. [The plaintiff] can freely choose to accept or refuse a COVID-19 vaccine; however, if she refuses, she will simply need to work somewhere else."
The employees have since appealed the dismissal of their case.
Initial word of the suspensions came in a staff-wide email sent June 8 by President and CEO Marc Boom, M.D.
In it, he announced that 24,947 system employees have been fully vaccinated, 285 had received a medical or religious exemption and 332 were granted deferrals for pregnancy or other reasons.
“I couldn’t be prouder of all of you as I know that for some, this was a very difficult decision,” he wrote in the email. “I want to personally thank you for choosing to get vaccinated. You did the right thing. You protected our patients, your colleagues, your families and our community. The science proves that the vaccines are not only safe but necessary if we are going to turn the corner against COVID-19.”
However, 178 employees who were not fully vaccinated by the deadline and did not have an exemption or deferral would be suspended without pay for the next two weeks, Boom wrote.
“I wish the number could be zero, but unfortunately, a small number of individuals have decided not to put their patients first,” he wrote.
“I know that today may be difficult for some who are sad about losing a colleague who’s decided to not get vaccinated. We only wish them well and thank them for their past service to our community, and we must respect the decision they made,” he wrote.
The executive said at the time he was “hopeful” that 27 suspended employees who had received one of their vaccine doses would seek full immunization during the initial two-week suspension.
He noted that the hospital was prepared for pushback from employees and others in the media for its mandatory policy and that “criticism is sometimes the price we pay for leading medicine.”
In their lawsuit and during protests reported by The Texan, employees opposing the policy likened Houston Methodist’s requirement to the medical experimentation conducted by German researchers during World War II. Because the vaccines have not received full approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, mandating their use would conflict with a set of research ethics established after the conflict known as the Nuremberg Code, they said.
In their dismissal of the case, the federal judge wrote that the Nuremberg Code does not apply because Houston Methodist is a private employer and that equating the COVID-19 vaccines to those experiments is "reprehensible."
On May 28, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission published guidance indicating that employers can legally require employees to be vaccinated for COVID-19 “so long as employers comply with the reasonable accommodation provisions of the [Americans with Disabilities Act] and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and other [Equal Employment Opportunity] considerations.”
Several other hospitals and health systems including the University of Pennsylvania Health System and RWJBarnabas Health have come forward with their own policies mandating employee vaccination in the weeks since Houston Methodist’s initial announcement. Others like Ochsner Health have said they will not consider a mandatory requirement until the vaccines receive full FDA approval.
Boom acknowledged the other health systems adopting mandatory COVID-19 vaccine policies in his letter and suggested “many more” will be announcing similar requirements in the days ahead. Doing so, he said, is part of a provider organization’s responsibility toward patient safety.
“This decision was ultimately made for our patients, as they are at the center of everything we do at Houston Methodist,” he wrote to the employees. “It should bring you great satisfaction to know that your actions will help keep patients as safe as possible when they come to us for care. You have fulfilled your sacred obligation as health care workers, and we couldn’t ask for more dedicated, caring and talented employees.”