The Potluck

Allina flu vaccine mandate struck down for some workers after union challenge

By: - July 19, 2023 2:40 pm

Allina Health Mercy Hospital Unity Campus in Fridley. Courtesy photo.

Allina Health may not mandate the flu vaccine for some of its employees after the workers’ union challenged the policy and won a favorable ruling from an arbitrator this month, ending for now a 15-year battle over the policy.

Jamie Gulley, president of SEIU Healthcare Minnesota & Iowa, said the union supports vaccines and vaccine mandates for some illnesses like COVID-19, but that the flu shot is not effective enough to fire workers over.

“It’s only 40% effective … year over year,” Gulley said. “It’s just not effective enough to justify that penalty for declining.”

Allina argued that the flu is highly contagious and that requiring workers to get the vaccine is reasonable to protect patients, according to arbitrator Steven Rutzick’s decision. Rutzick wrote that while the health system has a compelling reason to mandate the flu vaccine, doing so without the union’s consent was overreach.

Allina did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

SEIU Healthcare Minnesota & Iowa represents nearly 5,000 workers across Allina hospitals and clinics, including licensed practical nurses, clerical workers, laboratory technicians, cooks, pharmacists, shuttle bus drivers and other workers. The union representing Allina nurses, the Minnesota Nurses Association, did not challenge the policy nor did any other union.

The arbitrator’s July decision in the case could mark the end of the yearslong dispute; Allina has proposed mandating workers get the flu shot in union negotiations going back to 2008, which SEIU members have always rejected.

In 2021, Allina adopted a policy — without consent from the union — that workers could be terminated for refusing the flu vaccine unless granted exemptions for medical or religious reasons.

The policy has remained in place while the union contested it with federal labor regulators, but no workers lost their jobs for refusing just the flu vaccine. There were workers terminated for refusing both the COVID-19 and flu vaccines, but they won’t be reinstated as a result of the arbitrator’s decision, Gulley said.

Gulley said efforts to encourage workers to voluntarily get vaccinated can be more effective than mandates. With employers that partner with the union on a voluntary vaccination program, immunization rates are greater than 90%, he said. Allina has never had more than 90% of its workers get vaccinated on any unit, according to the arbitrator’s decision.

“(Mandates are) counterproductive because you create messengers and disciples of opposition to the vaccine itself,” Gulley said. “Employers that have been requiring an ineffective vaccine, like flu, has contributed to the distrust of the public health system.”

Gulley also notes no Minnesota or federal health agency recommends employers mandate the flu vaccine, even though they do recommend everyone get them.

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Max Nesterak
Max Nesterak

Max Nesterak is the deputy editor of the Reformer and reports on labor and housing. Previously, he was an associate producer for Minnesota Public Radio after a stint at NPR. He also co-founded the Behavioral Scientist and was a Fulbright Scholar to Berlin, Germany.