Dozens of cheering supporters gathered outside the Houston Methodist Baytown campus Monday evening as several medical workers who refused to get a COVID-19 vaccine ended their last shifts working for the hospital system.
The act of protest was aimed at what workers said was the hospital’s decision to suspend employees for two weeks without pay and then fire them for failing to immunize themselves.
Jennifer Bridges, a nurse who effectively lost her job at the Baytown facility for deciding not to be inoculated, said the goal was to stage a walkout but that did not go as planned. Participating employees who refused the vaccine’s first dose were told not to gather or linger on the hospital grounds after ending their shift, she said.
“The hospital wouldn’t let us do it,” Bridges said.
She got out of work early, emptied her locker and gathered with others on a grassy medium near the ambulance entrance to the hospital. Bridges fished a paper out of a backpack — a suspension report — that she had been asked to sign. She refused, she continued.
About 117 employees in May filed a class action lawsuit against the health system for requiring its workers to be vaccinated against COVID-19. Bridges said the plaintiffs in the suit are a mix of those who want more trial data to emerge on the long-term effects of the vaccine before taking it, and those who simply don’t want any shots.
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“We’re not against the vaccine, we just want to be more comfortable with this one and have thorough research out before we take it,” Bridges in April said. “When patients get care, they have the right to refuse treatment, but we’re not allowed that same exemption.”
The suit alleged that the three major coronavirus vaccines are only authorized for emergency use by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, meaning employers cannot require them as a condition of employment. At least 50 more employees have expressed interest in joining the plaintiffs since the lawsuit went public, she said.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the federal agency that oversees workplace laws, issued guidance on May 28 that said businesses can require their employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19.
Houston Methodist employs 26,000 people in the region. Almost 100 percent of their employees have complied with the vaccination requirement, according to Methodist spokesperson Gale Smith, “making the right decision to fulfill their sacred obligation to protect our patients.”
Houston Methodist’s employees are required to receive a flu vaccine every year.
“Unfortunately, a few employees have not met the vaccine requirements and are inviting other employees to join them as they end their shifts today,” Smith said. The hospital system does not have an estimate of how many workers will be terminated as a result of the immunization requirement.
All employees who left Monday night were just leaving after their scheduled shifts, the hospital said.
Michelle Fuentes, a nurse in outpatient care at Methodist’s downtown Houston location, was escorted out of her building last month after refusing to sign what she said was a religious waiver.
She could keep her job, Fuentes said, if she agreed to not voice her opinions about the coronavirus or the vaccines to prevent it.
“They told me they would get my stuff, my lunch,” Fuentes said. “They walked me out.”
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Dr. Angelina Farella, a Webster pediatrician was wearing a white coat for the right-wing political organization America’s Frontline Doctors, on Monday led the group in prayer.
A car drove by the crowd minutes later and a driver cried out: “I’m fully vaccinated!”
Another woman, Mona Wilson, stood with her husband and daughter after ending her last shift as a Methodist medical coder. She worked from home.
Wilson, 73, refused to be vaccinated and would not sign religious exemption paperwork, she said.
“My managers, my bosses are really nice,” she said. “They’re just following orders from HR.”
Her husband, Allen Wilson, called the decision unfair.
“It’s not right,” he said. “She never interacts with anyone but me. She leaves the house twice a week — to go to the beauty shop and for church on Sunday.”
As dusk descended, Fuentes joined the crowd as they marched toward the front of the hospital. Bridges hopped into the back of a pickup truck at one point and circled the building.
More than half of frontline medical workers across the U.S. have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, according to a survey from the Kaiser Family Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based health policy think tank. As of April, 18 percent of frontline medical workers said they did not plan on signing up for a shot.