More than a dozen workers at the East End’s three hospitals have been suspended for failing to get the COVID-19 vaccine by the New York State-mandated deadline of Sept. 27, officials said.
That includes 14 staffers at Stony Brook Southampton Hospital who were suspended for 30 days without pay unless they get their first shot or they’ll be fired. Northwell Health terminated 1,400 workers — nearly the equivalent of firing all of Peconic Bay Medical Center (PBMC) in Riverhead — at its 23 hospitals across Long Island, New York City and Westchester, although the state’s largest healthcare group did not specify how many of its employees at PBMC specifically were let go. It was not immediately clear how many workers at Stony Brook Eastern Long Island Hospital in Greenport were impacted.
“Our staff is committed to the safety and well-being of our patients and community as we continue to provide the highest level of medical care and offer all hospital services and programs,” Stony Brook University Hospital officials said in a statement.
The mandate has prompted fears that staff shortages could cause some hospitals to postpone elective surgeries or curtail services, although the impact did not appear as dramatic at the nearly two dozen hospitals across Nassau and Suffolk counties. The repercussions may be felt more in other regions of upstate New York with lower vaccination rates, experts say.
“Our greatest responsibility is to protect our most vulnerable, and ensuring that the healthcare workers who care for our loved ones are vaccinated is critical to keeping New Yorkers safe,” Gov. Kathy Hochul said in the days following the deadline. “I am grateful to the facilities, unions, and healthcare workers who took important steps to prepare and protect New Yorkers, and we are working with facilities to ensure they remain operational. We will continue to monitor developments and work with stakeholders to troubleshoot any issues, and I stand ready to take additional action as needed.”
Days before the deadline, Hochul said she was considering employing the National Guard and out-of-state medical workers to fill staffing shortages, with 16% of the state’s 450,000 hospital staff not fully vaccinated at the time. Healthcare workers who are fired for refusing to get vaccinated will not be eligible for unemployment insurance unless they are able to provide a valid doctor-approved request for medical accommodation, Hochul’s office said.
Several other states, including California, have imposed similar measures. The inoculation push comes as President Joe Biden and other state and federal political leaders ratchet up pressure on unvaccinated Americans, some of whom object to mandates on religious or health grounds. But a federal judge in Albany temporarily ordered New York State officials to allow religious exemptions for the state-imposed vaccine mandate on healthcare workers.
Many large U.S. employers have announced vaccine mandates, including Walmart Inc., Google’s parent company Alphabet Inc. and the federal government. Legal experts have said requiring vaccines is one way an employer can meet its duty to reduce workplace hazards such as COVID-19. The cases against government employers generally allege that mandates violate the right to bodily integrity under the 14th Amendment of the Constitution. Cases against private employers tend to focus on violations of laws that bar mistreatment based on disabilities and religious beliefs.
Nationally, more than 77% of adults have received at least one vaccine dose, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The country’s COVID death toll has surpassed 700,000, according to a Reuters tally.
Mandates have proven to be effective in boosting vaccination rates in healthcare. Hochul on Sept. 30 said 92% of the state’s more than 625,000 healthcare workers were inoculated, up from 73% on Aug. 16 when former Gov. Andrew Cuomo laid down the deadline for vaccinations. Then-Health Commissioner Howard Zucker said the mandate would “help close the vaccination gap” and reduce the spread of the highly contagious Delta variant.
But a small number of employees have decided they would rather lose their jobs than get shots. U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley), the congressman who represents the East End and is the GOP frontrunner in the 2022 gubernatorial race, rallied with healthcare workers in opposition to the mandate.
“Our healthcare workers were nothing short of heroic the past 18 months,” Zeldin said. “Regardless of the uncertainty, lack of [personal protective equipment] and other essential resources at times, gruelingly long hours and pain, suffering, and death around them, they rose to the challenge over and over again. They helped us navigate some of the pandemic’s darkest days and saved lives. We shouldn’t be firing these essential workers. We should be thanking them for all they’ve done for our communities.”
Northwell announced its vaccine mandate in August, weeks before the state requirement. The company’s mandate extended to both clinical and non-clinical workers. As with other healthcare companies that have recently terminated workers for not complying with vaccine mandates, the fired employees represent a small percentage — in Northwell’s case, 2% — of Northwell’s workforce of more than 76,000, all of whom are now inoculated.
“Northwell has taken a rapid, aggressive approach to move successfully toward full vaccination compliance while maintaining continuity of care and ensuring that our high standard of patient safety is not compromised in any way,” Northwell said in a statement. “We thank the vast majority of our employees who did the right thing and got vaccinated. Northwell believes that having a fully vaccinated workforce is an important measure in our duty to protect the health and safety of our staff, our patients and the communities we serve.
“Northwell regrets losing any employee under such circumstances, but as healthcare professionals and members of the largest healthcare provider in the state, we understand our unique responsibility to protect the health of our patients and each other,” the statement continued. “We owe it to our staff, our patients and the communities we serve to be 100 percent vaccinated against COVID-19.”