Trio who refused flu shots not fired yet — but probably will be
The good news for Alanda Watson is that she's not out of a job for refusing to get a flu shot or wear a protective mask all day. The bad news is, in two weeks, she almost certainly will be.
Alanda Watson was put on an unpaid, two-week suspension by Lutheran Social Ministries of New Jersey Friday — as were fellow flu shot objectors Megan Duncan and Denise Mercurius, she said. They've got until Nov. 16 to either accept the shot or agree to wear a mask.
Firing "is the next step in our disciplinary process," she said. "Unpaid suspension, then termination."
The trio's dispute with Lutheran Social Ministries caught widespread media attention this week, with reports they expected to be fired by Friday. That didn't happen, but Watson's sure it's not far off unless she changes her mind — and she insists she won't.
"I still firmly believe that wearing a mask in a business office is ridiculous," she said.
And as for getting the shot, optionally offered for free by her company?
"As far as I'm concerned, my body is more important than my paycheck," she said.
It's not uncommon for hospitals to require employees to get flu shots — but it's more rare for other facilities and companies.
Lutheran Social Ministries has a number of clients, some of which are at high risk for potentially debilitating or deadly diseases such as the flu. Through various programs throughout New Jersey, it serves senior citizens, the homeless, immigrants, at-risk children and battered women.
Watson says her work as an office staffer doesn't bring her into contact with those populations.
But it could, on occasion, said Ruth Lewis, executive director of marketing and communications for the Lutheran Social Ministries.
She stressed she can't talk about the trio's specific case as a personnel matter. But any staffer may well be asked to visit a facility where vulnerable populations are being served, she said. And when the company rolled out its health policy requiring flu shots or masks for all employees this year, it wanted to take an even approach across the entire company, she said.
"It was decided to have a blanket policy, she said. "Also, we try to have a a fair policy," Lewis said.
The company wrote its opt-out policy — allowing flu shot exemptions for religious, medical and other reasons — fairly broadly, she said. Lewis said to the best of her knowledge, no one who asked for an exemption was denied.
But those granted exemptions, for any reason, are required to wear masks, she said.
The populations served by Lutheran Social Ministries are "an audience we’re always very concerned about, so ... we try to be up to date and ensure the best care possible," Lewis said. That means taking care to prevent spread of any illness.
Watson said she's already secure in her own best practices. She's not in a crowded space, she uses tissues and hand sanitizer — she even avoids directly touching doorknobs, she said.
"I've never had the flu. ... Being that I've never had the flu and my immune system is good, I don't see the need. People are talking about the flu like we're intentionally spreading a disease," she said.
And she said her office hasn't had serious problems with callouts or severe sickness.
According to the Centers for Disease control, over a period of 31 seasons between 1976 and 2007, estimates of flu-associated deaths in the United States range from a low of about 3,000 to a high of about 49,000 people.
Flu shots contain a dead form of a flu virus that cannot develop into influenza. Nasal sprays use a weakened form of the virus that medical experts say stands no statistical chance of developing into influenza.
Both trigger an immune system response that can result in some flu-like symptoms, albeit ones that are typically more short-lived than influenza itself.
Because influenza viruses vary from year to year, the effectiveness of vaccines can as well.
A company is within its legal rights to fire someone over violating a policy, so long as it's not discriminating, an attorney told New Jersey 101.5 — though he also said he thought doing so for refusing to get a flu shot was taking things too far.
Lewis — speaking for herself, not her organization — said she thinks it's good that companies are taking discussions about flu vaccination and employee health seriously. But she said there's "no black and white answer" for every organization.