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PeaceHealth places unvaccinated staff on unpaid leave Wednesday, prompting unfair labor charge
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PeaceHealth places unvaccinated staff on unpaid leave Wednesday, prompting unfair labor charge

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COVID-19 vaccine syringes

Syringes of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine sit on a table during the first day of administration in Cowlitz County in December 2020 at PeaceHealth St. John Medical Center in Longview.

As of Wednesday, more than 94% of PeaceHealth caregivers had met the employer’s COVID-19 vaccination requirements and those who did not were placed on unpaid leave, according to the organization.

PeaceHealth spokesperson Debra Carnes said she could not provide the specific percentage for PeaceHealth St. John Medical Center at this time, but expects it to “closely mirror” the systemwide percentage.

When the organization announced its requirement on Aug. 3, about 69% of the nearly 1,600 workers at PeaceHealth St. John and PeaceHealth’s Longview clinics were vaccinated, according to the organization.

PeaceHealth, Kaiser Permanente requiring COVID-19 vaccination for employees

PeaceHealth’s mandate applies to all workers, including providers, students, contractors, vendors and volunteers.

Caregivers who didn’t meet the requirement of being vaccinated or working toward being vaccinated were placed on unpaid leave Wednesday, according to PeaceHealth. Those placed on leave may return to work if they adhere to the vaccination policy and provide documentation of vaccination.

The Washington State Nurses Association on Aug. 20 filed an unfair labor practice against PeaceHealth because of it’s “unilateral decision” to place workers who received a medical or religious exemption on leave without bargaining with the union, said Ruth Schubert, association spokesperson.

The association represents nurses at PeaceHealth’s five Washington hospitals. Under federal labor law, PeaceHealth is required to negotiate with the union over its individual vaccine mandate, Schubert said.

PeaceHealth initially sat down with the union to negotiate, but stopped responding and imposed its own deadlines and terms for dealing with nurses who qualified for an exemption, she said.

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“Unlike any other hospitals of which we are aware and which allow exempted nurses who seek accommodations to continue to work at the bedside with appropriate PPE (personal protective equipment), PeaceHealth has unlawfully placed exempted nurses on unpaid leaves of absence effective Sept. 1,” Schubert said in an email. “Given how critical the nursing shortage is already, nurses are deeply concerned about what this unlawful measure means for already depleted and critically understaffed nurses.”

State hospital officials urge caution, vaccination as COVID patients increase

The union asked the National Labor Relations Board to request a federal court issue an injunction to prevent PeaceHealth from removing exempted nurses until PeaceHealth has fully bargained the topics with the union. The board is investigating the union’s charge.

PeaceHealth did not specifically respond to request for comment about the charge.

“PeaceHealth planned ahead for how best to provide safe, high quality care during the current public health emergency and our facilities remain appropriately staffed,” said PeaceHealth spokesperson Carnes in a statement about the vaccine requirement.

According to a statement from PeaceHealth last week, the hospital had plans to bring in a supplemental workforce to step in for as many as 5% of “our unvaccinated colleagues who may choose to depart.”

Cowlitz County commissioners approve resolutions opposing COVID-19 vaccine mandates

PeaceHealth and Kaiser Permanente announced their own vaccine requirements about a week before Gov. Jay Inslee on Aug. 9 announced healthcare and long-term care employees, as well as state workers, will be required to show proof of vaccination by Oct. 18.

Following the governor’s announcement, the nurses union and two others representing healthcare workers released a joint statement on vaccine requirements.

“The Washington State Nurses Association, SEIU Healthcare 1199NW and UFCW21 support science-based public health directives on COVID-19 vaccination requirements for frontline health care workers, with medical and religious exemptions,” the statement says, “We stand firmly behind vaccination as the best way to save the lives of patients, family members and members of our communities.

“At the same time, we fully expect employers to bargain with us over this change to working conditions.”

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