Local impact: Religious exemptions end for NY healthcare workers

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ALBANY, N.Y. (NEWS10) — Religious exemptions from the COVID-19 vaccine for healthcare workers are no longer permitted through the New York State Department of Health. New York is joining only two other states—Rhode Island and Maine—on this stance. But what will be the impact on local hospitals and employees?

“You have employees who are saying, look, we have a right to have this religious exemption just like there’s this medical exemption,” Kathryn Barcroft, Partner at Solomon Law Firm, said.

New York State DOH sent a letter to healthcare facilities on November 15 to confirm that all covered entities would ensure that employees “who were previously granted religious exemptions have documentation of either a first dose COVID-19 vaccination or a valid medical exemption.”

Barcroft said the verbiage in the following sentence of the letter is confusing and leaves the level of responsibility put on New York healthcare facilities in a grey area.

“Facilities should have a process in place to consider reasonable accommodation requests from covered personnel based on sincerely held religious beliefs consistent with applicable Federal and State laws, including Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) laws such as Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and NYS Human Rights Law, and their applicable guidance.”

New York State Department of Health

“It’s a part of the human right law that you cannot discriminate against someone because of a sincerely held religious belief,” Barcroft said.

Barcroft said it seems they are putting the responsibility on the facility to adhere to these human rights laws. However, some local Capital Region hospitals have spoken; Albany Medical Center, Glens Falls Hospital, and St. Peter’s Health Partners are making no exceptions for religious beliefs.

Albany Med will put roughly 40 employees who previously sought religious exemptions on suspension without pay for seven days. After that week, employees who do not have at least one dose of the shot will be “exited” from the organization.

“We have worked closely with employees to educate them of the state’s requirement and have encouraged them to discuss their concerns with our Pastoral Care chaplains,” Albany Med stated. “We are hopeful that any members of our staff who are unvaccinated will become vaccinated for the safety of our community.”

Glens Falls has a total of 48 employees who requested religious accommodations, and they will be placed on unpaid administrative suspension today.

“We are abiding by the NY State requirements and have notified these employees that they had until November 21 to receive a first shot (and must complete the two-shot series on schedule) or the J&J one-shot vaccine,” Glens Falls Hospital said.

St. Peter’s has around 200 staff members across their system who currently have a religious exemption and will be placed on suspension without pay on November 23. They will have until January 8 to submit their proof of vaccination or face termination of employment effective January 9.

“As we are a large system, the employees who would be suspended are spread out and will not impact one particular area,” St. Peter’s stated. “At this time, there are no large pockets of vacancies that would lead us to suspend any services.”

Barcroft has several clients that are seeking religious exemptions; most of them are Christian.

“While many employers are complying with the black and white terms of the actual mandate for the vaccine, there is a bit of language in here that says you have to be aware of discrimination law,” Barcroft said.

Because of that, she said this isn’t the end for healthcare workers fighting for religious exemptions. Legal battles will continue to play out in the courts.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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