One of the Capital District’s largest employers is requiring all its workers to get vaccinated for COVID-19.
Locally, Trinity Health, one of the nation’s largest Catholic health care systems, owns St. Peter’s Health Care Partners, which employs more than 11,000 people at St. Peter’s and Samaritan hospitals, Sunnyview Rehabilitation Hospital, the Eddy and other facilities.
Trinity Health, based in Michigan, is mandating “all colleagues, clinical staff, contractors, and those conducting business in its health care facilities be vaccinated against COVID-19” by Sept. 21. That includes more than 117,00 employees in 22 states.
“Safety is one of our Core Values. We know these vaccines are safe and reduce the chance that members of our community could become seriously ill or end up in one of our hospitals,” said Dr. James Reed, president and CEO of SPHP. “We have an obligation to those we serve to provide the very best care. This decision represents the next step in our continuing efforts to do all we can to provide healing, compassionate care, while recognizing our vital role in ending this pandemic.”
Other large health care providers in the Capital District, Albany Medical Center Hospital and Ellis Hospital, do not require employees to get vaccinated but are working towards vaccination policies towards that end.
About 75 percent of the employees at SPHP are already vaccinated, according to a statement by the organization. The federal Center for Disease Control has not determined if a COVID-19 vaccine booster will be required annually. If so, employees of Trinity Health will need to submit proof of the booster as needed.
Employees who do not meet criteria for exemption, and fail to show proof of vaccination, will face termination, according to a statement by Trinity.
It is the first large employer in the area to mandate a vaccine and it has sparked the debate on whether it is legal and/or ethical to do so. Ethical questions aside, since they are subjective, last month, a federal district court in Texas dismissed a case challenging a hospital’s requirement that all employees get vaccinated.
The ruling states the employees “can freely choose to accept or refuse a COVID-19 vaccine; however, if [they] refuse, [they] will simply need to work somewhere else … Every employment includes limits on the worker’s behavior in exchange for his remuneration. This is all part of the bargain,” according to the National Law Review.
Privacy protections provided by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPPA, is not applicable since nobody is sharing personal information except the applicant, and the law does not prevent the employer from asking the question.
“HIPPA does not really apply. Potentially, if you don’t want to answer that question, that is fine, but they don’t have to employ you either,” said Leslie Silva, a partner at the Tully Rinckey Law Firm based in Colonie. “It’s a pretty challenging time for employers now. You see them taking their time and trying to make good choices to maintain their business and protect their employees and customers.”
Unlike vaccination mandates for K-12 students in this state, Trininty is allowing a religious exemption. The religious exemption for school children in this state, —which is broad and relatively easily obtained so long as the belief is “sincere” — was reversed by the state Legislature in 2019 and upheld by the Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, in April.
School children are not mandated to get vaccinated, but they have to get vaccinated for iphtheria, tetanus, pertussis, hepatitis, measles, mumps, rubella, polio and chickenpox if they want to attend public or private schools. Middle and high schools are also required to get Tdap vaccine and meningococcal conjugate vaccine while those in day care and pre-K must get haemophilus influenza and pneumococcal conjugate vaccine.
If they choose to not get vaccinated, they can be homeschooled. Right now, students are not required to get a COVID-19 vaccination, but the CDC recently said students and teachers who are vaccinated do not have to wear a mask.
The same logic, and legal reasoning, could apply to any court challenge to private employers who require vaccinations. As of right now, though, those opting to not get vaccinated are not a “protected class” like race or sexual orientation.
“It is not protected class under the law as far as any discrimination questions go,” Silva said. “For that to happen it would take a separate ruling from a judge, or a panel of judges in a higher court or it would come to through the legislature, and if that happens it would be challenged in court.”