‘I’m Not Changing My Mind’: New York Fires Unvaccinated Health-Care Workers

Health care workers transport a patient from an ambulance to Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn. Photo: Angela Weiss/AFP via Getty Images

On Tuesday morning, hours after New York’s vaccine mandate for health-care workers went into effect, Deborah Conrad was pretty sure she’d lost her job. The 46-year-old physician’s assistant, who works at United Memorial Medical Center in Batavia, has refused to get the shot and was one of tens of thousands of unvaccinated New Yorkers whose employment hung in the balance after the state’s order went into effect at midnight. Conrad’s co-worker told her she was no longer on the schedule for next week and her email seemed to have been shut off.

“I’m assuming I am no longer employed. It’s my understanding that there is no notice or letter going out,” said Conrad. A spokesperson from Rochester Regional Health, the system that operates Conrad’s hospital, said that 99 percent of its employees had complied with the mandate, but did not respond to questions about firings. Conrad said that she would not let the mandate influence her decision not to get the shot. “A lot of people I work with felt forced into getting vaccinated. But I’m not changing my mind. I’m not better off than any of them, I just feel very strongly.”

On Wednesday, Governor Kathy Hochul’s office indicated that a major crisis had been averted at hospitals, some of which prepared for a staff shortage. In a press release, the governor’s office said no facility has closed because of the requirement. Catholic Health system in Western New York postponed a number of elective surgeries on Monday while it assessed its staffing levels, but by the end of the day the system had achieved 100 percent compliance with the mandate, according to a spokesperson for the network, and dodged being short-staffed. On Thursday, Albany Medical Center told Spectrum News it closed two emergency urgent care centers temporarily in order to reallocate staff to its main campus.

The state’s largest health care employer, Northwell Health, was the first to confirm that it had fired about two dozen managers on Monday for not getting the shot. While Northwell, which employs 76,000 people statewide, has begun the process of firing the rest of its unvaccinated staff, it would not provide numbers on just how many workers it would lose. Erie County Medical Center had suspended about five percent of its hospital workforce, or 176 employees, in addition to 100 staff members at its long-term care facility. The employees will have 30 days to comply with the mandate before they are fired, according to a spokesperson. Hochul has said that health care workers fired for refusing the vaccine will not be eligible for unemployment insurance without a valid accommodation signed by a doctor.

Hochul had declared a state of emergency and said that she would deploy National Guard troops with medical training to help at hospitals across the state Monday night, if necessary. After a last-minute surge that inoculated 3,000 public hospital employees, Mayor Bill de Blasio said that roughly 10 percent of the city’s public-hospital workforce, or about 5,000 people, remained unvaccinated and were not allowed to work. (On Monday, a federal appeals court ruled that the city’s mandate for nearly all public-school employees can proceed. De Blasio gave them until the end of the day on Friday to get at least one dose of the vaccine or else they would be suspended without pay come next week.)

The state’s mandate has seemed to push up vaccination rates. Statewide 87 percent of hospital workers have received at least one dose, up from 84 percent last week, but lower than the governor’s initial estimate of 92 percent. Nursing homes, however, did hit 92 percent compliance, up from 70 percent when the mandate was first announced in August. Staff at home care and hospice need to be vaccinated by October 7 or else they too will face termination.

While most states have resisted implementing mandates, health-care workers in Rhode Island, Oregon, Maine, and Washington, D.C., are also now required to be vaccinated. On Monday, a hospital system in Delaware said that it had fired 150 people for not complying, according to the Times. Novant Health hospital system in North Carolina said that it had fired 175 employees, according to the Associated Press.

New York’s health-care mandate is facing at least eight lawsuits. Last week a federal judge in Utica issued a temporary restraining order that allowed health-care workers with religious exemptions to continue working until at least October 12. Jillian Dobrzenski, a 34-year-old nurse at Catholic Health, is among those who have a religious exemption, but said that her choice to remain unvaccinated was based on a range of factors, including that she had COVID last December. If the religious exemption isn’t extended beyond October 12, Catholic Health said unvaccinated employees will be placed on unpaid leave for 30 days, after which their employment will be terminated.

“I’m not ready to not be a nurse anymore and this would basically eliminate me from being a nurse in the entire state,” Dobrzenski said. “We would probably be okay on savings for at least a handful of months. After that, I already have an RN license to work in the state of Florida and it looks more and more each day like we’ll probably end up selling our house and moving.”

New York Fires Unvaccinated Health-Care Workers