Wisconsin nursing home staff laid off for refusing COVID-19 vaccine

Employees at a Janesville nursing home risk losing their job if they do not take the COVID-19 vaccine, a policy that has caused outrage among many staff members.

Officials at Rock Haven, a Rock County-owned facility, issued a memo in December telling employees that the vaccine was “a requirement for all staff” and that employees who failed to get the vaccine would be laid off. A copy of the memo was obtained by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel through an open records request.

According to the memo, a laid-off employee will not be eligible to return to work until they complete the two-dose vaccine regimen.

Rock Haven officials have taken a hard line on vaccination, employees say, despite some employees’ concerns about unknown long-term effects or worries about their pregnancy or their fertility.

Michelle Lynch, a secretary at Rock Haven, said employees should not be forced to get the vaccine.

“We have staff that are having side-effects from it, and they’re being told, ‘Too bad,’ ” she said.

In letters to Rock County supervisors, two employees said they suffered high fevers and other side-effects from getting the vaccine on Jan. 5, the first day the nursing home conducted vaccinations. One of them wrote that the side-effects were so bad she had to go to the doctor and was advised not to get the second shot of the vaccine.

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Terra Anderson said she lost her job as a registered nurse when she didn’t report to receive the vaccine on Jan. 5. She was worried about unknown long-term effects of the vaccine.

She later got a letter dated Jan. 6 telling her that she had been laid off for her “inability to meet the essential functions of your job; failure to complete the Covid-19 vaccine as scheduled,” according to a copy of the letter provided by Anderson.

The letter said she could return to her job at Rock Haven if there was a change in circumstances and instructed her to provide any updated medical information.

“I don’t understand why we are the only ones who made it mandatory,” she said.

Anderson said when she lost her job, she lost her health insurance. But she is fortunate, she said, to have a significant other with a decent-paying job.

As the vaccine rolls out, questions have arisen about whether employers can, or should, require employees to be vaccinated. Generally speaking, legal experts say, they can, but so far few cases have emerged where employers — public or private — have done so.

Nursing homes have been the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic. At least 1,500 nursing home residents in Wisconsin have died with COVID-19, according to data reported to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services through Jan. 3, the latest available.

That’s around 30% of all COVID-19 deaths in Wisconsin. Most of those 1,500 deaths occurred in the last three months, when COVID-19 cases and deaths skyrocketed in nursing homes.

Rock Haven has reported 13 positive cases in residents since May, with the last positive case reported in October, according to the CMS data. Two Rock Haven residents have died from COVID-19, according to the data.

There are a little over 90 residents, according to the latest data.

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Forty staff members have tested positive for the virus since May, including some recently, according to the data.

Officials at CVS and Walgreens, the two main pharmacy chains conducting vaccinations at long-term care facilities across the country, have said that long-term care employees have been much more reluctant than residents to get the vaccine.

Mark Parkinson, president and CEO of the American Health Care Association, which represents long-term care facilities, estimated that, overall, around 50% of long-term care staff are getting the vaccine during the first vaccine visit.

“We’re having a real challenge with staff,” he said during a web briefing Thursday by the Kaiser Family Foundation. “There’s a lot of misinformation out there. There are rampant rumors spreading on social media that the vaccine can cause fertility problems, which has caused concerns among many of the young women that work in our facilities.”

But he said that mandating the vaccine is not necessarily the answer.

“I don’t know what the right answer is. I know that we have to get the acceptance rate among staff much higher than it’s been,” he said. “I’m way more of a carrot than a stick person. I’ve been encouraging providers to offer incentives and awards and bonuses to people who get the vaccine as opposed to punishments if they don’t.”

He said few long-term care providers nationwide have mandated the vaccine for their staff, in part because of concerns over staffing shortages.

Betty Halverson, who works in housekeeping at Rock Haven, said she didn’t feel comfortable getting the vaccine, but that she did anyway because she isn’t ready to retire.

“I’m 64. … Who’s going to hire me?” she said. “I had to get the shot because I couldn’t afford to take a layoff.”

It’s unclear exactly how many people have been laid off at Rock Haven for declining the vaccine. Neither the nursing home’s interim administrator, nor Rock County Administrator Josh Smith, returned messages Friday seeking an interview.

The Gazette in Janesville quoted Smith as saying three or four Rock Haven employees had been laid off after declining the vaccine.

Lynch, the Rock Haven secretary, said five or six employees lost their jobs.

There are about 200 employees at Rock Haven, she said, including not only nurses and aides, but also maintenance, housekeeping and administration.

In the letters to county supervisors, some employees voiced concern that the mandate would hurt staffing levels and ultimately jeopardize resident care. They worry more people will be laid off when the next round of employees is scheduled to receive their first dose of the vaccine on Feb. 2.

Some county supervisors were surprised to find out Thursday about the mandate. At a Thursday board meeting, the Rock County clerk read aloud several letters from employees objecting to the mandate.

County Supervisor Wayne Gustina said he thought the vaccine requirement was “totally wrong.”

“It should be left up to the individual,” he said. “They’re stepping way out of bounds, way out of line on this.”

County Supervisor Kathy Schulz asked about exemptions, saying they should be considered for those employees getting seriously ill.

The issue will be on the next meeting’s agenda on Jan. 28, Gustina said.

Sarah Volpenhein is a Report for America corps reporter who focuses on news of value to underserved communities for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Email her at svolpenhei@gannett.com. Please consider supporting journalism that informs our democracy with a tax-deductible gift to this reporting effort at JSOnline.com/RFA.