Home Health Workers Vaccine Deadline Looms, Amid Statewide Disaster Emergency | by Mehr Sher | Labor New York | Oct, 2021

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Mehr Sher
Ana Palacios, a technician at New York Presbyterian, poses in front of a mural near the hospital campus in New York City. (Photo: Mehr Sher)

The final, approaching deadline for New York state’s vaccine mandate on Oct. 7 is likely to cause more strain on an already short-staffed healthcare system. While the vaccine mandate has proven to be effective in increasing vaccination rates across the state, it has also increased the workload for the vaccinated healthcare workers who remain at the job.

“I could tell you right now that some clients are not getting coverage through an aide for over 5–6 hours and even up to 1 hour in the hospital I work at as well. Due to the shortage from the mandate, they are doing overtime with a lot of us,” said Leonie Stephenson, a registered nurse at Northwell LIJ Hospital.

The previous deadline on Sept. 27 for hospital staff led to the termination of unvaccinated staff in hospitals across the state. There are no figures available yet as to how many total healthcare workers were fired statewide. However, Northwell, one of the largest hospital systems in New York, fired 1,400 unvaccinated workers.

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul declared a statewide disaster emergency on Sept. 27, stating “that a disaster is imminent in New York State, for which the affected local governments are unable to respond adequately.” The executive order allows the outsourcing of healthcare workers and the deployment of the medically trained National Guard.

Gov. Hochul also released data showing the impact of the vaccine mandate on vaccination rates among healthcare workers on Sept. 28. During the past four weeks, 92% of hospital staff were vaccinated, as of Sept. 27, based on preliminary self-reported data.

New York state’s vaccine mandate has become rather contentious. Gov. Hochul has been facing her first legal challenge in office over the rejection of religious exemptions in the mandate. Federal courts have temporarily stopped employers from enforcing the mandate against people with religious exemptions until Oct. 12.

Labor New York contacted several hospitals across New York City. Many hospitals were hesitant to answer questions about the numbers of healthcare workers they terminated and whether that has significantly affected their staffing.

To a question about the numbers of employees terminated, a representative from New York Presbyterian said over the phone, “I can’t answer that. Please send your questions to us in an email.” Later, New York Presbyterian also declined the emailed request.

“Yes, there has been firing and I think they said around 250 people throughout our whole healthcare system have been fired. But, I’m not really sure,” said Briana Cunningham, a nursing attendant at New York Presbyterian. “I feel like in our hospital alone, we may have lost 250 people. Before the vaccination mandate even happened, closer to the deadline, we were really short on the floors.”

“I’ve lost some coworkers that have worked in the hospital for 10 years and they’re good people. They’re good workers and they just didn’t feel comfortable getting the vaccine and I can’t disagree with them for it. It’s a personal choice,” Cunningham said.

“Now, they’re hiring temporary agencies and outsourcing. They’re hiring a lot right now, but it’s just not enough in the capacity that we need.”

Lonnie Hernandez, who works in patient care support in the intensive care unit at New York Presbyterian leans against the hospital wall during his lunch break. (Photo: Mehr Sher)

“We have a few thousand associations that filed for religious exemptions and we’re waiting to see how that plays out. We had staff shortages all along because of what’s been happening in health care,” said a director of public relations from a prominent hospital in New York City, during a phone interview — she was concerned about being quoted directly.

In comparison, Mount Sinai Health System was more forthcoming with their data. “Close to 99% of the staff within our entire system have been vaccinated and less that 1% of the employees choosing not to get vaccinated will lose their jobs,” said Lucia Lee, the Vice President of Public Affairs and Media at Mount Sinai Health System, in a phone interview.

When asked what made the enforcement of the mandate effective at Mount Sinai, Lee said, “We messaged quite broadly through the organization, made vaccination pods throughout the system’s eight hospital campuses, and made it very easy.”

1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East –one of the nation’s largest and fastest growing healthcare unions with over 450,000 members New York City and Long Island– was also hesitant to answer questions regarding the vaccine mandate and the numbers of members that are unvaccinated and were recently terminated.

“Since the vaccines have been available, 1199SEIU has poured resources into urging our members to get vaccinated, including, most recently, a televised message from our President,” an 1199SEIU spokesman said.

“We have always believed that education should be the first strategy to promote vaccination, and since the mandates were announced we have been focusing our energy on communicating one-on-one with our members to answer their questions and encourage vaccination.”

During a COVID briefing on Sept. 29, Gov. Hochul thanked the thousands of healthcare workers. “To all the healthcare workers, especially those who are a little nervous about this and anxious, and didn’t do it until recently, I thank you for doing what is right, caring about the people that look to you for their lives.”

Just days before the vaccine mandate deadline for home health workers, on Oct. 7, shortages are also expected by the Home Care Association for delivering health services to the most vulnerable — the elderly and disabled.

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