By Terri Jo Neff
Shockwaves continue to ripple through Arizona’s beleaguered healthcare industry after Tuesday’s emailed announcement by Banner Health CEO Peter Fine that employees could lose their jobs if they fail to provide proof of a COVID-19 vaccination by Nov. 1.
Fine’s companywide email touted uncited “overwhelming evidence” and “vaccine data” which purportedly proves the “safety and efficacy” of the three current vaccines. Employees will have the option to undergo an unspecified “exemption request process,” in hopes of retaining their job without being vaccinated but the between-the-lines message to Banner Health employees is that terminations are possible for refusing to subject themselves to the risks of an emergency-use-only vaccine.
Banner Health is also putting up $100,000 to award 10 fully-vaccinated employees with $10,000 each in a companywide drawing this summer.
“We care for some of the most vulnerable people in our communities and we owe it to them to take every measure possible to ensure the safest care environment,” Fine wrote, adding that mandatory vaccinations will reduce risk “for our patients, their families, visitors and each other.”
The problem, according to many in the healthcare industry, is that Arizona is already experiencing a shortage of workers in a high demand market. An exodus of qualified workers to other hospital systems or into smaller healthcare companies could leave Banner Health without enough medical professionals to adequately serve its patients.
Studies show the majority of healthcare workers who have declined so far to be vaccinated for COVID-19 are under the age of 40. Many have expressed concern about the lack of data about long-term impacts on fertility and overall health.
In April, Gov. Doug Ducey issued an Executive Order banning proof of vaccinations, also known as vaccine passports, and preventing state and local governments from requiring anyone to disclose their COVID-19 vaccination status to receive service or enter a public area.
The Order, however, allowed health care institutions to require COVID-19 vaccination status documentation of a patient, resident, employee, or visitor.
Protecting all Arizonans from being coerced into obtaining a COVID-19 vaccination was a priority for Rep. Bret Roberts throughout the recent legislative session. Roberts (R-LD11) advocated strongly for passage of a state law to prevent government and private employers from interfering with anyone’s freedom of choice when it came to being vaccinated.
Eventually the language of Roberts’ bill was watered down to protect those doing business with government entities, as well as customers and clients of private employers. Employees of private companies -particularly those working in the healthcare industry- would have had no protection.
The bill never made it to Ducey’s, but the governor did sign legislation which ensures any person “may refuse a vaccination…based on the person’s personal beliefs” during a public health emergency.
Roberts spoke out Tuesday against Banner Health’s mandate, expressing concern about the unknown risks associated with the current COVID-19 vaccines.
“Force and coercion, in my opinion, are not routes that should be taken,” he said. “Adults should be able to weigh the risks involved and decide for themselves.”
One of those who opposed freedom of choice protections for employees of private companies was State Sen. T.J. Shope (R-LD8). Shope bragged earlier this month about protecting Arizonans -including legislative staffers- from government required proof of vaccinations, but refused to support the same protections for most employees across the state.
To date, Banner is the largest private employer in Arizona to announced forced vaccinations as a condition of new or continued employment. However, earlier this year the U.S. Chamber of Commerce provided tips to its members on how to persuade employees and customers to receive the COVID-19 vaccine.
“Vaccination is a personal decision, so it’s logical that when employers show a personal willingness to be vaccinated, they are more likely to increase the willingness of their employees—across all demographic groups – to follow their lead and get the shot,” according to the chamber’s website.
The website also provides guidance for employers on talking to employees about getting vaccinated and includes advice on conducting business-sponsored “get vaccinated” events.