A $10.3 million settlement in a class action lawsuit that challenged a private healthcare employer’s COVID-19 vaccination policy sends a “strong warning” to companies to consider workers with religious objections when mandating vaccines, according to an attorney representing the plaintiffs.
More than 500 current and former healthcare workers at Evanston, IL-based NorthShore University Health System will receive a share of the settlement under an agreement reached Friday. The employees in the case sued the health system because its vaccination policy did not allow them to opt out for religious reasons.
Nonprofit religious freedom organization Liberty Counsel, which represented the plaintiffs, said that the settlement is the first involving a US private employer that did not grant accommodations or exemptions to its vaccination mandates.
“This particular matter should serve as a reminder to long-term care facilities that if an employee requests to be exempted from a mandatory vaccination policy due to religious beliefs, the employer should engage in a well-documented interactive process with that employee to determine what reasonable accommodation, if any, may be suitable for them and the facility,” Craig Annunziata, regional managing partner in Fisher Phillips’ Chicago office, told the McKnight’s Business Daily. Annunziata was not involved in the case.
According to court records, NorthShore conceded in the settlement agreement that between July 1, 2021, and Jan. 1, 2022, 523 employees requested and were denied religious exemptions and/or accommodations to its vaccine policy requiring COVID-19 vaccination.
Liberty Counsel Vice President of Legal Affairs and Chief Litigation Counsel Horatio G. Mihet called the settlement agreement a “strong warning” to employers to consider those with religious objections when mandating vaccines.
“This case is just one example of the types of post-pandemic class actions being brought against employers in the healthcare arena,” Fisher Phillips’ Annunziata said.
In addition to the monetary terms of the settlement, NorthShore agreed to re-examine its vaccination mandate policy. Workers whose employment was terminated because they refused to be vaccinated on religious grounds now are eligible to be rehired at their previous seniority levels.
“The settlement reflects implementation of a new system-wide vaccine policy which will include accommodation for team members with approved exemptions, including former employees who are rehired,” NorthShore Director of Public Relations Colette Urban told The Center Square.