ST. PAUL — A group of health care workers has filed a lawsuit in federal court against a southern Minnesota hospital over its employee COVID-19 vaccination requirement after some employees lost their jobs for failing to comply with the policy.

An emergency room doctor and registered nurses who declined vaccination are among the 20 current and former Northfield hospital employees who claim the provider failed to accommodate their sincerely held religious beliefs and health concerns. The group filed a lawsuit Monday, Nov. 8, in Minnesota U.S. District Court.

In August, Northfield Hospital and Clinics introduced its mandatory COVID-19 vaccination policy for employees and said it would offer religious and health concern exemptions. The employees who joined the lawsuit, some with more than 20 years of experience with the hospital, claim their requests for exemptions were denied outright with no chance of appeal.

Northfield Hospital and Clinics used a “multi-disciplinary” panel to evaluate the merits of each employee appeal and whether the provider could reasonably accommodate an exemption, spokesperson Betsy Spethmann said in a statement.

“We stand by our vaccination policy. COVID-19 vaccines are highly effective at preventing illness and spread of virus,” the statement said. “Full vaccination of our staff is the best way to protect our patients, staff, and community.”

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Northfield hospital denied religious exemptions for all but one of the employees in the lawsuit. Health concerns claimed by the employees included cancer treatment, severe migraines, neurological issues and pregnancy. One employee who lost her job was a registered nurse who had been with the company 14 years and was undergoing treatment for breast cancer.

None of the plaintiffs' medical exemption requests were granted, according to the complaint.

Three employees were forced to resign "under duress," and the rest were placed on administrative leave on Oct. 15, according to the lawsuit. The hospital sent each an identical letter declining an exemption and failed to engage in any efforts to accommodate the "wide-ranging and individualized" requests.

"Several Plaintiffs were told by their managers that exemptions were going to be "difficult' or 'impossible' to obtain," the lawsuit claims. "The predetermined nature of Defendants' denial of the requests quickly became clear."

Employees fired due to the vaccine mandate had to forfeit their paid time off, with some employees losing hundreds of hours and potentially thousands of dollars in pay, according to the complaint. The hospital told employees who chose to resign over the requirement that they would be able to redeem their paid time, but several of the plaintiffs claim they did not receive payment, the lawsuit claims.

In all, less than 3% of the health care provider’s employees were placed on administrative leave over the vaccine requirement before the company let them go, according to Spethmann.

Northfield Hospital and Clinics operates clinics and a hospital directly south of the Twin Cities metro area.

Health care providers serving greater Minnesota and the Dakotas such as Sanford and Essentia Health fired and placed employees on suspension as their vaccine mandates came into effect. Duluth-based Essentia last week fired 49 employees, while Sioux Falls-based Sanford placed 82 on suspension. In both cases noncompliant workers made up less than 1% of the companies’ workforces.