A group of Pomona Valley Hospital nurses and other health care workers has hired an attorney in response to an emailed form letter they received from hospital administrators denying their requests for religious exemptions from the state’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate.
The Epoch Times obtained a copy of the Aug. 31 blanket email, which gave employees until three days prior to the Labor Day holiday to comply by providing additional information to substantiate their religious exemption applications.
“We received your COVID-19 vaccine religious exemption request. After thorough review of your request, we are informing you that the Hospital has concluded that the request should be denied on the grounds that it does not establish a sufficient basis for granting an exemption from the vaccination requirement,” the form letter denial reads.
“If you wish to provide additional information for us to consider, you may do so, but we are most interested in hearing from you in your own words how your religious beliefs conflict with the Hospital’s vaccination requirement.”
According to the state’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH), an employer may require employees to receive a Food and Drug Administration-approved COVID-19 vaccine as long as the employer complies with the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA).
That means, in mandating vaccinations, the employer must provide reasonable accommodation on the basis of disability or sincerely held religious belief or practice; they can’t discriminate against or harass employees or job applicants on the basis of their disability or religion; and they can’t retaliate against anyone for engaging in a protected activity (such as requesting a reasonable accommodation).
An attorney told The Epoch Times that some hospitals’ vaccine exemption denials are based on “faulty legal grounds.”
Tom, an attorney whose name has been changed to protect his identity, was previously advising nurses and other health care workers pro bono regarding vaccine exemptions. He now represents employees at Pomona Valley Hospital and sent a letter on Sept. 3 to officials at the hospital requesting that they abide by employment laws or face lawsuits by each plaintiff.
He noted that while many health care organizations are processing religious and medical vaccine exemptions in line with DFEH, FEHA laws, and Title VII protection, many others aren’t, which he believes is a clear violation of employee rights.
On March 4, California’s DFEH released updated COVID-19 guidance (pdf) addressing several open questions regarding employee vaccination under California law. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) provided similar guidance on how mandatory vaccination programs could comply with federal law.
“The case is pretty clear, that a sincerely held religious belief of an individual is just that,” Tom told The Epoch Times. “The exemptions are not reliant on confirmation or affirmation from a pastor or priest or from some spiritual leader. You don’t have to testify to the frequency of attending services. Some of the questions employers are including in the applications are very intimidating and they’re designed to make employees think that they don’t even have a belief or that they can’t defend their beliefs.
“So, there are two things going on. One is there’s an actual intentional effort to intimidate and coerce people to not even submit an exemption request by asking questions of employees that are overbroad and irrelevant to this analysis. The second effort is to deny the exemption once they’re submitted, saying they want more information, or it’s denied again as a form of harassment and intimidation. It throws so many obstacles at employees and makes it hard for them that they just give up and cave in to these mandates.”
Employees wishing to apply for religious or medical exemption at Pomona Valley Hospital had initially been required to submit the hospital’s exemption form by Aug. 30, even though the state mandate for vaccines doesn’t take effect until Sept. 30.
Pomona Valley’s exemption form reads (pdf):
“All Employees, Members of the Medical Staff, and Volunteers working at Pomona Valley Hospital Medical Center (PVHMC) are required to be vaccinated for COVID-19 by September 30, 2021. This requirement is aligned with the State of California’s Public Health Officer Order of August 5, 2021.
“An Associate may be entitled to an exemption for the following reasons: 1. The Associate is excused from receiving any COVID-19 vaccine due to qualifying medical reasons, per the most up-to-date COVID-19 vaccine guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC); or 2. The Associate is declining vaccination based on religious beliefs. To request an exemption, an Associate must complete the following required forms and submit no later than Monday, August 30, 2021: COVID-19 Mandatory Vaccination Declination Form [and] Medical Verification of Request for Exemption for Qualifying Medical Reasons from COVID-19 Vaccination Form [or] Religious Belief Exemption Supporting Statement Form.
“All requests for medical exemptions will be submitted for a confidential panel review, which will follow CDC. The panel will include Physicians and an Occupational Health Services (OHS) representative; you or your physician may be contacted for more information. All requests for religious belief exemptions will be submitted for a confidential Committee review. The Committee shall consist of religious leaders, a Physician, and an OHS representative.
“Associates who meet criteria for exemption will be considered unvaccinated. There is no exemption from testing if unvaccinated.”
Awaiting a Response
“We are asking that Pomona Valley respond to each application individually, on a case-by-case basis,” Tom told The Epoch Times. “Each of the individuals we are representing submitted Pomona Valley’s COVID-19 Vaccination Declination Form with the information requested therein. More information is not necessary or required by law—it is a clear overreach and attempt at coercion and intimidation.”
In its guidance for employers, the DFEH notes that accommodating sincerely held religious beliefs and practices may be achieved through job restructuring, job reassignment, or modification of work practices, but that segregating an individual based on religion generally isn’t reasonable.
As with disability accommodations, employers may exclude employees from the workplace if they show that an accommodation imposes an undue hardship.
“I can’t imagine they are ready to fire or otherwise allow 200-plus staff members [to] walk off the job,” Tom said. “Operationally, that would be very difficult, but more importantly, patient care would be put at risk. The optics in that scenario would be pretty bad.”