Nurses in northern Illinois facing termination unless they get vaccinated against COVID-19 are suing their employer for refusing to grant them exemptions from the shots.
In September, Riverside Healthcare in Kankakee, Illinois, informed all employees who filed for exemptions from the hospital system’s vaccination mandate that their requests were denied, claiming the company would not allow unvaccinated health care workers to care for patients, according to the Daily Journal.
The denial form letter sent to employees stated, in part: “Based on our review of your declination request and our COVID Vaccination Program Policy, your request has been denied. Although your religious or strongly held belief may otherwise qualify for an exemption, Riverside has decided to deny your request because you are in a patient-facing position.”
Despite its refusal to honor the exemption forms, Riverside Healthcare stated it takes “all requests very seriously and respect[s] the time you invested to submit this.”
On Wednesday, six nurses filed a lawsuit against their employer, seeking a permanent injunction to stop the hospital system from enforcing its vaccine mandate. The firm representing the nurses, the Liberty Justice Center, called the require to a “ruthless overreach.”
The Liberty Justice Center is representing Neelie Panozzo, a nurse practitioner with nearly 25 years of experience; Valerie Kietzman, who has been a registered nurse with Riverside for four years; Judy Busato, a Riverside nurse for seven months; Kathryn Hamblem, who has worked as a nurse practitioner at Riverside for four years; Carmen Wymore, a registered nurse with five years of experience at Riverside; and Amy Memenga, a nurse manager of 26 years who claims she was fired in September.
“This is a ruthless overreach aimed at coercing front-line workers to do something they sincerely believe is wrong,” said Daniel Suhr, the managing attorney at the Liberty Justice Center. “These nurses know the virus better than anyone and are making a deeply personal, individual choice that should be respected. Not only is that the right thing to do, but it’s Illinois law.”
Panozzo said she has “dedicated my life to living out my faith by serving my patients.”
“I believe I am called to love and serve my patients, especially those who are frail and vulnerable,” she said, according to a press release from the Liberty Justice Center. “I am also following my faith’s teachings when I say I cannot accept this vaccine. I am ashamed that Riverside will not respect my sincere beliefs and instead insists on firing all of its employees who sought conscience protections.”
In addition to Riverside Healthcare, the nurses’ lawsuit names the hospital system’s president and CEO, Phil Kambic. In response to the suit, the hospital stated: “As a healthcare provider, we believe protecting the health and safety of our patients and employees is out top responsibility and must be our No. 1 priority.”
Riverside is Kankakee County’s largest employer with more than 3,0000 staffers. As of late August, the last time data was made available, Riverside had a vaccination rate of 54%.
The lawsuit comes as Illinois Gov. J. B. Pritzker (D) is attempting to block people from using the Health Care Right of Conscience Act to refuse vaccination on religious grounds.
“The Health Care Right of Conscience Act was never intended to allow people to avoid public health guidance during a global pandemic,” Emily Bittner, the governor’s deputy chief of staff, said this week. “The administration supports efforts to clarify the law, so it cannot be misinterpreted by fringe elements.”
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