CHICAGO — Some Illinois hospital systems are losing hundreds of employees as deadlines loom for health care workers to get COVID-19 vaccines — even as most workers have agreed to get the shots.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker set a deadline of Sept. 19 for all Illinois health care workers to get their first shots, with their second shots due within 30 days, which would have been Oct. 19, at the latest. Those who didn’t get shots by the deadline would have to be tested for COVID-19 weekly, he said.
But, in many cases, individual hospital systems set stricter rules than Pritzker, requiring their workers to be vaccinated by certain dates or turn in their badges.
But about 440 workers at Advocate Aurora Health in Illinois and Wisconsin “have parted ways” with the system because they weren’t vaccinated by Advocate’s Friday deadline and they didn’t have approved medical or religious exemptions, spokesman Mike Riopell said. Many of those individuals were not full-time employees. Overall, about 99% of the system’s 75,000 employees are vaccinated or have approved exemptions, or are in the process of doing so.
Nearly 100 of Rush University Medical Center workers stand to have their employment terminated because they didn’t get vaccinated or get approved exemptions, said Courtney Kammer, chief human resources officer at Rush. Overall, about 98% of Rush’s workers are vaccinated.
At Southern Illinois Healthcare, about 220 people are no longer employed because they refused to roll up their sleeves, said spokeswoman Rosslind Rice, though the vast majority of employees got vaccinated. The deadline to have started the vaccination process at Southern Illinois Healthcare was Sept. 24.
“The whole thing has been very emotional because some of these people are our friends,” Rice said. “It’s just what our world has come to, where we’re in a position where we’re at odds with people. ... We have to move forward.”
The deadlines hit as many hospitals face staffing challenges, because of COVID-19 burnout and general labor shortages. But many Illinois hospital leaders say they’re not overly worried by the vaccine turnover.
The systems losing hundreds of workers are large ones, so the employees refusing vaccines represent only small fractions of their workforces.
Southern Illinois Healthcare expects to be able to replace the departed workers with new ones quickly, Rice said. The system has been receiving a record number of job applications and has welcomed many new employees in recent weeks, she said.
Some of the Chicago area’s smaller providers say they’re only losing a handful of workers because of vaccine mandates.
Esperanza Health Centers is losing only two of its 311 employees because of its requirement that all of its workers get vaccinated by Oct. 13. Esperanza’s mandate was even tougher than that of many Chicago-area hospitals because Esperanza didn’t allow for religious exemptions, and is allowing medical exemptions only temporarily, such as while a person is undergoing medical treatment, said Dan Fulwiler, president and CEO of Esperanza.
Under Equal Employment Opportunity Commission guidelines, employers don’t have to grant religious or medical exemptions if an unvaccinated person would pose a direct threat to others in the workplace, or if accommodating him or her would be an undue burden.
“What we decided, after careful consideration, was we couldn’t really offer exemptions to anyone permanently because it would be putting our patients at risk,” Fulwiler said, noting that even if people are being tested weekly for COVID-19, they could still get infected and spread the illness between tests. Esperanza has five clinics on the city’s West and Southwest sides.
The coming months may bring more job losses at other hospital systems with later deadlines.
Sinai Chicago’s 3,500 employees have until the end of the year to get vaccinated or potentially lose their jobs. So far, about 92% are either partially or full vaccinated, spokesman Dan Regan said in an email.
At least a handful of Sinai’s workers have already quit, noting their objections to the requirement, Regan said. The system is now recruiting more workers and has “staffing and operational contingency plans to ensure the safety of our patients and our fellow caregivers,” he said.
At Amita Health, which is one of the largest hospital systems in Illinois, workers have until Nov. 12 to get vaccinated. As of Tuesday, about 89% of Amita’s employees were partially or fully vaccinated, spokesman Tim Nelson said in an email.
Amita expects that percentage to rise in coming weeks, as employees work to “avoid any disciplinary steps,” he said.
Many hospitals systems with high vaccination rates launched initiatives to persuade more of their workers to submit to shots.
Rush held town halls and meetings to educate employees on the vaccine, and suspended noncompliant workers for seven days after the deadline to give them one last chance to get vaccinated, Kammer said. President Joe Biden called out Rush’s high vaccination rate in a speech during his recent visit to Chicago.
Esperanza also held educational sessions and worked with the supervisors of people who were holdouts, Fulwiler said. An Esperanza doctor called all unvaccinated employees, individually, to answer questions.
Though only a couple of Esperanza employees are losing their jobs over the mandate, Fulwiler said he and others worry about those people. He’s concerned about their health and their ability to find new jobs, given that so many Illinois health systems are now requiring the vaccines as a condition of employment.
It surprised him that some Esperanza workers didn’t want the vaccine, after everything they’d witnessed over the last year and a half, he said.
“We work in a very, very hard-hit community, and some of the folks who are not getting the vaccine have literally had patients die,” Fulwiler said. “It’s kind of surprising to me that people still feel this strongly about it.”