Pomona Valley Hospital (PVH) reversed its decision to deny vaccine exemption requests submitted by more than 200 nurses and other staff after the group hired an attorney to represent them.
The employees had each submitted the hospital’s declination form requesting exemption from the vaccine based on their personal religious beliefs in response to state and county COVID-19 vaccine mandates for all health care workers.
Like all health care providers in the state, PVH is required by the California Department of Public Health’s order released on Aug. 5 to be in compliance with the order by Sept. 30 or face disciplinary action and fines.
The Epoch Times previously reported that the PVH employee group received a form letter email from the hospital denying their requests, and they hired employment attorney Dan Watkins of Watkins & Letofsky to assist them in seeking protection from the state’s vaccine mandate and the hospital’s blanket denial of their religious exemption requests. Watkins had previously requested to remain anonymous, but later chose to reveal his name after filing a lawsuit on behalf of employees at the Los Angeles Police Department.
Watkins sent a letter to Pomona Valley Hospital administrators requesting that they reverse the hospital’s stance on the matter or face lawsuits by its employees.
“We simply asked that PVH respond to each application individually, on a case-by-case basis,” Watkins told The Epoch Times. “Each of the individuals we are representing submitted PVH’s required form, and the hospital responded by asking for more detailed information to be submitted, then blanketly denied all of the requests by sending out a mass email.”
“More information is not necessary nor required by law. It is a clear overreach and attempt at coercion and intimidation. Additionally, the law states that each case must be reviewed on an individual basis—it is a highly personal and confidential consideration,” Watkins stated.
On Sept. 8, Watkins received a response by PVH’s attorney, Michael R. Goldstein of Musick, Peeler and Garrett, stating that the hospital had indeed reconsidered and would now approve the requests for religious exemptions it had received.
In part, the letter stated: “PVHMC believes that vaccines are the best way to reduce the spread of COVID19 and help protect against severe illness, hospitalization, and death. Having a fully vaccinated workforce is vital to PVHMC’s commitment to protecting public health, preventing disease, and promoting the well-being of the patients and the community it serves. PVHMC also understands that the California and Los Angeles County public health orders identify an exemption from mandatory vaccination based upon an employee’s religious beliefs.
Upon further review and examination, PVHMC has decided to approve all requests for religious exemption that it has received to date.”
Calls by The Epoch Times to Mr. Goldstein for comment were not immediately returned.
While exempted employees and volunteers will continue to be required to wear personal protective equipment like vaccinated personnel, they must also be tested for COVID-19 at least once a week to retain their exemption.
In the PVH declination form it states, “Associates who meet criteria for exemption will be considered unvaccinated. There is no exemption from testing if unvaccinated.”
Protecting Employee Rights
Watkins pointed out that while many health care organizations are processing religious and medical vaccine exemptions in line with FEHA laws and Title VII protection, many are not, which he believes is a clear violation of employee rights.
“The case is pretty clear, that a sincerely held religious belief of an individual is just that,” Watkins said. “The exemptions are not reliant on confirmation or affirmation from a pastor or priest or from some spiritual leader. You do not 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.”
According to the State Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH), an employer may require employees to receive an FDA-approved COVID-19 vaccine so long as the employer complies with the Fair Employment and House Act (FEHA).
This means that, in mandating vaccinations, the employer must provide reasonable accommodation based on disability or sincerely held religious belief or practice; cannot discriminate against or harass employees or job applicants based on their disability or religion; and cannot retaliate against anyone for engaging in a protected activity, such as requesting a reasonable accommodation.
On March 4, California’s DFEH released its updated COVID-19 guidance 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.
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 is generally not reasonable.
However, as with disability accommodations, employers may exclude employees from the workplace if they show an accommodation imposes an undue hardship.
“In some of these religious exemption cases, it is apparent that there has been an intentional effort to intimidate and coerce people to not even submit an exemption request in the first place by asking questions of employees that are overbroad and irrelevant to the analysis,” Watkins told The Epoch Times.
“In the case of PVH, they simply issued a blanket denial of the requests after saying they needed more detailed information, which is not legal and could be considered a form of harassment and intimidation.
“Many employers throw so many obstacles at employees and make it so hard or confusing for them that they just give up and cave in to these mandates.”