Former Bend Hospital Workers File Lawsuit Over COVID-19 Vaccine Requirements.
Bend, Ore. — Eleven former employees of the St. Charles Health System have filed a $2.5 million lawsuit claiming that their rights to religious freedom were violated when the health system required them to be vaccinated against COVID-19. The majority of the healthcare workers named in the lawsuit were placed on unpaid leave and later fired, while some quit and others were outright fired.
The lawsuit alleges that six nurses, a lab tech, and a phlebotomist had their applications for religious exemption accepted by the health system, but were still told that they could quit or be fired. Six were placed on unpaid leave and later fired, one quit, and one was fired because no accommodations could be made. Two hospital workers applied for a religious exemption, but were denied and let go, according to the lawsuit.
The former employees are seeking damages for lost wages or costs incurred because of their terminations, and the lawsuit claims that they are a protected class on the basis of their religious beliefs. The lawsuit alleges that the former employees were discriminated against and that the health system had an obligation to make accommodations for their religious beliefs.
The health system, the region’s largest employer, stood by its decisions. A spokesperson for St. Charles Health System, Kayley Mendenhall, said, “St. Charles fulfilled its obligations to comply in good faith with both state and federal vaccine requirements for healthcare workers and prioritized the safety of its patients, its caregivers, and the community during the global COVID-19 pandemic. We stand by our commitment to keep our community safe during that difficult time.”
The former employees are said to have experienced emotional and physical stress from comments made by other staffers and from the termination. One of the employees named in the lawsuit, Lisa Hindman, worked as a registered nurse for 32 years and had been named Caregiver of the Year during her time as a nurse. Hindman said in the lawsuit that she had applied for a religious exemption, which was accepted by the health system, but no accommodation was made that allowed her to continue working with patients. Hindman was given a choice of unpaid leave or termination, according to the lawsuit. The nurse chose termination and remained unemployed for about a year before finding an employer willing to accept and accommodate her religious exception. She is seeking economic damages of at least $149,587 and non-economic damages of $450,000.
Former Governor Kate Brown required all healthcare workers to be vaccinated against COVID-19 unless they had submitted and received approval for a medical or religious exemption. On the day the mandate went into effect, the health system reported 323 caregivers had applied for exemptions and 49 were reasonably accommodated with remote work, while 101 were on unpaid leave of absence. At the time, the hospital reported that 93.5% of its staff were vaccinated, and about 180 employees of the health system were said to have left because of the mandate.
Under Brown’s mandate, employees were required to provide corroborated statements to prove a medical or religious exemption. The attorney representing the medical professionals did not return phone calls seeking a comment from The Bulletin, the newspaper that first reported the story.