PROVIDENCE — Health care workers in Rhode Island were given an Oct. 1 deadline: Get vaccinated against COVID-19 or lose your job.
While the state has somewhat blurred that mandate so that unvaccinated workers can continue working past the deadline if their absence would cause a “risk to quality of care,” those who are unvaccinated are still “subject to enforcement.”
The state doesn’t have any projections on how many people might need to work unvaccinated, and individual hospital systems will have to file their own action plans. But in the meantime, many unvaccinated health care workers who have been on the frontlines of the pandemic in Rhode Island for the last 18 months could lose their jobs for not getting vaccinated now.
Some of these workers have been in the same position for decades. Others are new medical technicians and certified nursing assistants. They’ve submitted religious and medical exemptions and have been denied. They’ve protested at the State House and outside their workplaces. But the state — and their employers — are standing firm on the vaccine mandate.
“We worked with a lack of PPE. We were and are on the frontlines. And now we are being dropped,” said Paul Rianna Jr., who is a CNA who works with mental health patients at Our Lady of Fatima Hospital in North Providence. He’s one of the leaders of “Rhode Islanders for Medical Freedom,” a coalition of health care workers against the vaccine mandate.
“The work I do now is no different from the work I could be doing past Oct. 1,” he said. “I’m here for my patients. That hasn’t changed.”
The group raised $25,000 to hire a lawyer, and health care workers who were denied religious and medical exemptions are handing over the letters from their workplaces saying they won’t be welcomed back as an employee if they remain unvaccinated. They plan on taking their complaints to court.
“The information you provided... does not establish a religious exemption. Rather it reflects a personal or political view. Social, political, or economic philosophies, as well as mere personal preferences, are not religious believes are not protected by Title VII,” wrote CharterCARE’s human resources department when they denied Rianna’s request for a religious exemption. CharterCARE, which owns Fatima Hospital and Roger Williams Medical Center, has a staff vaccination rate of approximately 90 percent, according to spokesman Otis Brown.
While medical exemptions may be accepted under strict conditions, religious ones are not. And Rhode Islanders who lose their jobs because they refuse to follow their employers’ COVID-19 vaccine rules generally won’t be eligible for unemployment.
“At this point in my life, I’ll sell my stuff and hope that it’s enough to get us by,” said Michelle Riendeau Sztabor, a medical technologist for 13 years at The Miriam Hospital, which is owned by Lifespan Corp. She said she’s selling a piece of property to help once she’s jobless and may have to resort to becoming a waitress. “But I’m 60 years old. It’s definitely putting a hole in my retirement.”
Both of her parents are fully vaccinated, she said, and a friend in their 40s who was overweight and had diabetes died of COVID-19. But she says her grandchildren received religious exemptions to attend school this fall.
“I’m hoping that taking a stance will do something,” she said. “And if it doesn’t, so be it. It’s in God’s hands.”
One private medical office manager in Coventry, who did not want to be named in this story, said the vaccine mandate means her entire office staff will be out of a job come October. Another person said they are trying to get their nursing license in another state before their Rhode Island license is suspended.
But many of the unions in Rhode Island aren’t supporting workers’ efforts to avoid getting vaccinated.
“We know that the vaccine will help save lives. And we know that it will help Rhode Island return to some sense of normalcy,” Lynn Blais, president of the United Nurses & Allied Professionals, which has more than 7,000 health care members in the state, told the Globe. “And I’ve done the research. The state, legally, can impose this mandate. Anyone looking to go and fight this in court will be doing so for years.”
Patrick Quinn, executive vice president of SEIU 1199 New England, said the vaccine mandate is “a critical step toward controlling and ending the pandemic,” but said that not everyone can and will be vaccinated by Oct. 1.
“That’s why it’s critically important that employers and the state have a comprehensive strategy in place to ensure frontline caregivers have the staffing and support they need,” said Quinn.
And employers are also holding firm.
“Depending on what happens on the federal front, it’s going to be very difficult to work anywhere if you’re a health care worker that’s unvaccinated,” said Dr. Cathy Duquette, chief nursing executive for Lifespan, the largest health system in the state. Fewer than 1,000 of their employees are still unvaccinated with less than 9 days left until the deadline, she said. “We hope that it will push people to get vaccinated in the end.”
Alexa Gagosz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @alexagagosz and on Instagram @AlexaGagosz.