11 former St. Charles Health System employees file $2.5M lawsuit over COVID mandate
Eleven St. Charles Health System employees have filed a $2.5 million lawsuit alleging their rights to religious freedom were violated when the health system required them to be vaccinated for COVID-19.
Most of the health care workers named in the suit were placed on unpaid leave but later fired; some quit and others were fired outright.
Six nurses, a lab tech and a phlebotomist had their applications for a religious exemption accepted by the health system, but still were told they could quit or be fired, according to the lawsuit. 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, the lawsuit states.
One nurse did not apply for a religious exemption, but worked more than three decades at the health center, and chose to quit, according to the lawsuit.
Each is seeking damages for lost wages or costs incurred because of the terminations, according to the lawsuit, which was filed in Deschutes County Circuit Court. The lawsuit alleges the former employees are a protected class on the basis of their religious beliefs.
The health system — the region’s largest employer — stood by its decisions.
“St. Charles fulfilled its obligations to comply in good faith with both state and federal vaccine requirements for health care workers and prioritized the safety of its patients, its caregivers and the community during the global COVID-19 pandemic,” said Kayley Mendenhall, a spokesperson for St. Charles Health System. “We stand by our commitment to keep our community safe during that difficult time.”
The attorney representing the medical professionals did not return phone calls seeking a comment from The Bulletin. But the lawsuit states the health system had other options.
“It would not have been an unfair hardship to have allowed (them) to continue working with personal protective equipment, regular testing, or other measures to protect against the spread of COVID-19, as was done for the nearly two years before the imposition of the COVID-19 vaccine mandate,” according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit alleges that these employees were discriminated against and the health system had an obligation to make accommodations for the religious beliefs of its employees.
On Oct. 18, 2021, former Gov. Kate Brown required all health care workers to be vaccinated unless they had submitted and received approval for a medical or religious exemption. On the day the mandate went into affect, the health system reported 323 caregivers had applied for exemptions and 49 were reasonably accommodated with remote work and 101 were on unpaid leave of absence.
At the time, the hospital reported that 93.5% of its staff were vaccinated and 51 medical professionals were in the process of completing the vaccination two-shot series. About 180 employees of the health system were said to have left because of the mandate.
Employees were required, under Brown’s mandate, to provide corroborated statements to prove a medical or religious exemption.
In the lawsuit, the former employees were 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. She 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, according to the lawsuit. She is seeking economic damages of at least $149,587 and noneconomic damages of $450,000.
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