East End hospitals this week enforced the state mandate that all healthcare workers be vaccinated against COVID-19 by issuing ultimatums that staff show proof of vaccination by the 5 p.m. Monday, September 27, deadline set by the state Department of Health — or be suspended or terminated on Tuesday.
Stony Brook Southampton Hospital officials said on Wednesday that as of Tuesday 16 of the hospital’s staff members had been put on suspension and had 30 days to get vaccinated or they would be fired.
The deadline spurred dozens of unvaccinated workers to get shots to save their jobs over the past week and the hospital said more than 98 percent of its employees — and 100 percent of its physicians — were vaccinated by the time of the Monday deadline.
Both Stony Brook Medicine and Northwell Health, which operates Peconic Bay Medical Center, said that they have made contingency staffing arrangements to cover any staffing departures.
“We are optimizing preparedness and will make staffing adjustments as necessary,” a statement from Stony Brook Southampton Hospital officials on Tuesday said. “These staffing contingency plans will allow us to continue to provide safe staffing and the best possible care to our patients. Throughout this unprecedented health crisis, Stony Brook Medicine and Stony Brook Southampton Hospital have upheld the highest standard of safety and quality of care for our patients and this remains our highest priority.”
A hospital spokesperson said they have temporarily “scaled back” hours of some of its ambulatory services but expect to be back on schedule “soon.”
The South Fork’s only hospital informed all unvaccinated staff members on September 20 that they would be suspended without pay starting Tuesday, September 28, if they could not show proof of having received at least the first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine by 5 p.m. Monday — and will be fired if they are not vaccinated within 30 days after that.
In letters sent only to unvaccinated staff on September 20, the hospital informed them that if they were still not vaccinated by Monday afternoon they should not report to their next work shift.
The hospital said that suspended staff may speak to hospital administration, but will be suspended “without pay, compensation and/or accrual of benefits” for 30 days. If they still cannot show proof of vaccination by the end of that period, on October 26, they will be terminated and that claims for unemployment will be “vigorously challenged.”
The New York State Department of Labor announced recently that employees terminated “for cause” because of vaccine refusal would not be eligible for unemployment.
The ultimatum spurred many of Stony Brook Southampton Hospital staff members who had been holding out for various reasons to get vaccinations on Monday — with a “gun to my head,” as one employee put it.
“I just can’t take the suspension,” another longtime employee said in a message on Monday on the way to get a vaccination shot. “If I didn’t have a family to support, it’d be different … I feel my rights are being trampled on.”
The person, who asked not to be named for fear of “retaliation” by hospital administration, said several other employees grudgingly agreed to get vaccinated on Monday to save their jobs and benefits. Another staff member said that there had been at least 130 unvaccinated employees as recently as last week.
The union that represents most of Stony Brook Southampton Hospital’s staff, 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers, the largest health care union in the nation, has opposed and protested vaccine mandates at hospitals, while at the same time taking the official position that its members should all get vaccinated.
The person is among nearly two dozen Stony Brook Southampton Hospital employees who applied for a religious exemption from the mandate last week. All were denied, two different employees said.
The state mandate does not allow for religious exemptions. A lawsuit is pending in federal court challenging the constitutionality of the mandate being applied to those with religious objections. U.S. District Court Judge David Hurd has issued an injunction against the state enforcing the mandate on those with religious objections and has said he will issue a ruling by October 12.
Northwell Health, the medical network that includes Peconic Bay Medical Center in Riverhead, issued a mandate to its employees on Friday that they would be terminated if they were not vaccinated prior to Monday’s deadline.
Opposition to the vaccine mandate and criticism of hospitals laying off workers who had served through the most dangerous days of the pandemic echoed around the state as the deadline passed. U.S. Representative Lee Zeldin, who is a Republican candidate for governor in the 2022 state election, held a press conference at a rally outside state offices in Happauge on Tuesday where health care workers were protesting the mandate.
“Our healthcare workers were nothing short of heroic the past 18 months. Regardless of the uncertainty, lack of PPE and other essential resources at times, gruelingly long hours and pain, suffering, and death around them, they rose to the challenge over and over again,” Mr. Zeldin said at the rally. “They helped us navigate some of the pandemic’s darkest days and saved lives. We shouldn’t be firing these essential workers. We should be thanking them for all they’ve done for our communities.”
Governor Kathy Hochul on Saturday defended the mandate and announced a contingency plan for helping hospitals meet staffing shortages that may be experienced because of employees being out of work over objections to the vaccination — including possibly tapping the National Guard to provide medically trained soldiers to support hospitals.
The lack of explanation for how the state expected already short-staffed hospitals to prepare for the loss of workers who refused to get vaccinated had been a point of criticism from the South Fork’s state lawmakers, Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. and Senator Anthony Palumbo, who had warned about staffing crises at local hospitals if the mandate went into effect without a contingency.
“We are still in a battle against COVID to protect our loved ones, and we need to fight with every tool at our disposal,” Ms. Hochul said in a statement on Saturday. “I am monitoring the staffing situation closely, and we have a plan to increase our health care workforce and help alleviate the burdens on our hospitals and other health care facilities. I commend all of the health care workers who have stepped up to get themselves vaccinated, and I urge all remaining health care workers who are unvaccinated to do so now so they can continue providing care.”
A spokesperson for Northwell Health, one of the state’s largest health care networks, said that preparations for implementing the mandate had been underway for weeks. Unlike Stony Brook Medicine, the network did not allow for the buffer of an unpaid suspension period. Northwell announced on Monday that two dozen executive-level staff had already been terminated for refusing to get vaccinated and that the state deadline would be enforced strictly for all employees.
“We are now beginning the process to exit the rest of our unvaccinated staff,” Peconic Bay Medical Center Director of Marketing Victoria Palacio said in a statement on Tuesday. “Northwell wants to reassure the public that during this time there will be no impact to the quality of patient care at any of our facilities.
“Northwell regrets losing any employee under such circumstances, but as health care professionals and members of the largest health care provider in the state, we understand our unique responsibility to protect the health of our patients and each other,” Ms. Palacio added. “We owe it to our staff, our patients and the communities we serve to be 100 percent vaccinated against COVID-19.”