DOJ Sues SNF Over Mandated Flu Shot, Citing Worker's Religious Rights

John Commins, March 6, 2018

A federal complaint alleges that a skilled nursing facility did not provide 'reasonable accommodation' to an employee's religious objections. The SNF administrators say requiring nursing home workers to receive a flu shot is a public health issue.

The U.S. Department of Justice is suing a county-owned skilled nursing facility in Wisconsin that allegedly violated the religious rights of a former nurse's aide when it made her get a flu shot.

Barnell Williams was a nursing assistant at Lasata Care Center, a 136-bed, county-owned skilled nursing facility in Port Washington, Wisconsin, about 26 miles north of Milwaukee.

According to a complaint filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin, Lasata failed to accommodate Williams’ religious beliefs when she sought an exemption to Lasata's requirement of a flu vaccine.

The complaint alleges that Lasata's policy at the time required a flu vaccine but provided a religious exemption for employees who could produce a written statement from their clergy leader supporting the request.

Williams requested a religious exemption from the flu shot requirement because of her belief that Bible scriptures prohibited flu shots. However, she could not provide the clergy letter because she did not belong to an organized religion.

When Lasata denied Williams' religious exemption, she got the flu shot because she otherwise faced termination. The suit alleges that Lasata's policy permitting only employees who could obtain a letter from a clergy member to receive a religious accommodation violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

DOJ said the policy denies religious accommodations to employees, like Williams, who do not belong to churches with clergy leaders. The complaint also alleges that Lasata unlawfully denied Williams a reasonable accommodation of her religious objection to the flu shot by denying her a request for an exemption without the requisite showing that doing so would cause an undue hardship.

DOJ is seeking compensatory damages for Ms. Williams, in addition to injunctive and other appropriate relief.

"When employees’ religious principles conflict with work rules, they should not have to choose between practicing their religion and keeping their jobs if a reasonable accommodation can be made without undue hardship to the employer," said Acting Assistant Attorney General John Gore for the Civil Rights Division.

"Employers should take care not to craft policies that disfavor individuals because of their sincerely held religious beliefs or practices in violation of Title VII," Gore said.

Ozaukee County issued the following statement on Wednesday afternoon: "Ozaukee County is aware of a lawsuit filed by the United States Department of Justice, alleging religious discrimination against a former employee. The County is confident that its position under the existing law is correct. Requiring employees who work at a nursing home to receive a flu shot is not religious discrimination, it's an issue of public health and safety.

The County works with its employees to accommodate religious beliefs, but this particular employee waited until the last day to request an accommodation and failed to present evidence of a sincerely held religious belief. The County is disappointed that the federal government would use federal tax dollars to advocate on behalf of one person's untimely request for an accommodation.

The flu is a real and imminent threat to the residents of the Lasata Care Center and the County takes its responsibility to protect those residents very seriously."

John Commins

John Commins is a senior editor at HealthLeaders Media.

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