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Nurse union challenges firings: Essentia Health flu shot mandate passes deadline

DULUTH, Minn. — The union that represents registered nurses at Essentia Health announced on Monday, Nov. 20, it will file a grievance on behalf of every member fired for failing to comply with the health system's mandatory flu shot policy.

But as of late Monday, the day employees who had neither been vaccinated nor applied for an exemption were to have been fired, it wasn't clear how many grievances that would be.

"We were hearing earlier it could be anywhere from five to 50," said Rick Fuentes, a spokesman for the Minnesota Nurses Association. But so much activity was taking place on Monday that the actual number was anybody's guess, he said.

The MNA represents about 2,000 of Essentia's total workforce, described in its 2016 annual report as more than 14,000 employees across four states.

Duluth-based Essentia was mum on Monday regarding the numbers, saying through a spokeswoman that updated information would be available Tuesday, Nov. 21. Last week, Essentia said that although Nov. 10 was the original deadline for getting vaccinated or obtaining an exemption, employees could continue to do either right through Monday and avoid losing their jobs.

Even Monday's deadline turned out to be squishy for Sharon Beaulieu, a medical records clerk at Essentia's West Annex, a warehouse and office building in West Duluth. Beaulieu, a longtime employee whose only objection to the flu shot is that she doesn't think it should be required, was told on Friday that she was being terminated and should not report to her second-shift job on Monday. But on Monday morning, she said, she was called and told to come to work after all, the caller saying she could file an appeal when she arrived.

She said she would claim in her appeal that the flu shot mandate was a civil rights or human rights violation.

"I have no religious grounds," said Beaulieu, 68. "I have no medical grounds."

In fact, she has gotten a flu shot in past years, Beaulieu said, but she doesn't think an employer should be able to require the vaccination.

As of Monday afternoon, there was no respite for Scot Harvey, who said he received notice of termination from his job at Essentia Health in Duluth last week and it became official on Monday.

Harvey, 50, worked for about a year as a part-time administrative representative, among a group of registered nurses who essentially supervise a hospital after hours. He doesn't meet Essentia's requirements for a medical exemption, Harvey said, but he had debilitating reactions to vaccinations while he was serving in the military and isn't willing to risk a flu shot now.

Harvey, who lives north of Chisholm, said he's disgusted with the way health care is provided in the U.S. in general and probably will apply for a job in the mines. But he would have continued at Essentia had the flu shot requirement not come up, he said.

Three unions have challenged the flu shot mandate. The United Steelworkers, which represents about 2,000 of the health system's employees, sought a preliminary injunction to block enforcement of the requirement, but that was denied by U.S. District Judge Wilhelmina M. Wright.

The Minnesota Nurses Association previously filed an unfair labor practices charge against Essentia with the National Labor Relations Board over the issue. That case hadn't been resolved as of Monday.

In a news release on Monday, the MNA accused Essentia of failing to bargain over the issue in good faith.

"It was clear that Essentia had no intention to negotiate," said Steve Strand, co-chairman of the bargaining unit in Duluth. "We will file grievances to fight for any nurses terminated for sticking to their beliefs and contract language."

Meanwhile, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Council 65, also filed charges against Essentia with the NLRB, alleging unilateral contract changes occurred.

Details weren't available on Monday, but Shannon Douvier, associate director of Nashwauk-based Council 65, confirmed it stemmed from the vaccination requirement.