Mandatory Flu Shot Or You're Fired

By Dan Fastenberg

Everyone knows the flu shot has a serious purpose. After all, it's a safeguard against a condition that kills 36,000 people a year, according to the John Hopkins School of Medicine. But for the workers of one Ohio health center, the risks of skipping out on the vaccine extended beyond increased risk of catching the flu -- they got fired.

TriHealth, a Cincinnati, Ohio-based health center fired 150 of its workers the Wednesday before Thanksgiving for not complying with a mandate that every member of the 10,800-person staff get the vaccine, which was being offered for free on-site. The workers had been given a month to comply with the mandate before Nov. 16, according to local Ohio news outlet, WLWT.

A TriHealth spokesman did add that all the workers who skipped the vaccine can appeal to be reinstated after getting the shot. Whatever their motivation, be it simple laziness or a philosophical or religious opposition to getting the vaccine, the workers are facing an increasingly common workplace policy. Fourteen states and the District of Columbia have passed laws requiring health workers to get the flu vaccine, according to the Centers for Disease Control. (In most jurisdictions, workers are allowed to seek an exemption, however, whether for religious or for medical reasons, such as an allergy.)

"It probably started when the swine flu H1N1 virus hit," in 2009, said Donna Ballman, AOL Jobs' employment law expert. "Workplaces became more aware," and have little obstacle in enforcing mandatory vaccines. "Private employees have no civil liberties. The Constitution protects you from government intrusion in your private life. But not from your employer."

It's the same reason why employers are allowed to read your emails, for instance, added Ballman, author of the book, Stand Up For Yourself Without Getting Fired: Resolve Workplace Crises Before You Quit, Get Axed or Sue the Bastards. And so workers interested in fighting against such requirements, or other similar workplace practices, are forced to do so through collective bargaining when setting the terms of employment, she said.

While no institution tracks the exact number of workplaces that require flu vaccines, the practice has been expanded to other Ohio health centers besides TriHealth, as well as to Colorado.

Not surprisingly, the CDC reports that the mandates dramatically increase the vaccination rate. U.S. hospitals that require flu shots reported a vaccination rate of 95.2 percent between 2011-12 season, compared with 68.2 percent at hospitals where they were not mandated, the CDC said.

Regardless, the practice rubs some labor groups the wrong way. Citing the "absence of a basic philosophic or personal exemption for healthcare workers," the Service Employees International Union released a statement opposing such workplace mandates. The SEIU, and its 1 million members, was joined in the statement by other unions, such as the AFL-CIO and National Nurses United. Critics also point to a recent study published in The Lancet, which found that the flu vaccine is 59 percent effective.

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