Hospital agrees to pay employees over $10 million In dispute over vaccine mandates

August 13, 2022

Employees who were given a mandate to receive the COVID-19 vaccine or lose their jobs have agreed to settle their class action lawsuit filed against their employer for $10,337,500.

Hospital workers from the NorthShore University HealthSystem were given an October 31, 2021, deadline to receive their vaccines. Fourteen workers filed a class action lawsuit against the hospital claiming they were discriminated against based on their religion.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act requires that employers provide reasonable accommodations to employees whose religious beliefs conflict with a workplace rule unless doing so would create an undue hardship. Employees requesting a reasonable accommodation are entitled to an individualized assessment and interactive discussion to determine if a reasonable accommodation can be provided.

During the pandemic, some employers wrongly believed they could avoid compliance with this federal law in the name of the pandemic.

In the Class Action Settlement Agreement filed with the U.S. District Court on July 29, 2022, the “Settlement Class” includes “All NorthShore Team Members who: (1) between July 1, 2021, and January 1, 2022, submitted to NorthShore a request for religious exemption and/or accommodation from its Vaccine Policy requiring COVID-19 vaccination; (2) were denied a religious exemption and/or accommodation; and (3) either received a COVID-19 vaccine to avoid termination or were discharged or resigned based upon their religious declination of a COVID-19 vaccine.”

NorthShore estimated that approximately 523 Team Members requested and were denied a religious exemption and/or accommodation to its Vaccine Policy requiring COVID-19, including approximately 204 who “became compliant with the Vaccine Policy’s COVID-19 vaccination requirement,” and 269 who were “discharged or resigned based upon their religious declination of a COVID-19 vaccine,” according to the Settlement Agreement.

Following the settlement, NorthShore has agreed to offer reasonable accommodations for employees in “all positions who obtain approved vaccination exemptions under NorthShore’s System Vaccine Program.” In addition, those employees who were terminated for refusal to take the vaccine will be offered re-employment.

Liberty Counsel represented the plaintiffs and said in a statement, “This is a historic, first-of-its-kind class action settlement against a private employer who unlawfully denied hundreds of religious exemption requests to COVID-19 shots.”

Liberty Counsel estimated that “employees who were terminated or resigned because of their religious refusal of a COVID shot will receive approximately $25,000 each, and employees who were forced to accept a COVID shot against their religious beliefs to keep their jobs will receive approximately $3,000 each.”

In their announcement, Liberty Counsel said, “There is no pause button on the federal employment law under Title VII. Employees do not lose their right to reasonable accommodation for their religious beliefs simply because an employer or even the federal government pushes a vaccine mandate under the guise of a pandemic.”

It is interesting that the first settlement for vaccine mandates is in a healthcare system, an industry that would seemingly be in the best position to argue that unvaccinated workers present a direct threat or create an undue hardship.

Going forward, employers should not create a blanket rule that there will be no exceptions to a vaccine mandate for religion or disability. Each person who submits a request for an accommodation needs to be evaluated on an individualized basis, and employers should consider whether the employee can be reasonably accommodated. Employers should document their efforts to engage in the interactive process.

For a religious accommodation, employees need only demonstrate that they possess a sincerely held religious belief that conflicts with a workplace rule. The religion need not be one that is traditional or recognized.

All documents supporting the need for an accommodation should be maintained in a separate file.

It is estimated there are over 600 current lawsuits in the United States against employers for vaccine mandates, and there are likely more to come.