Alanda Watson will return to work Tuesday under an order than she get a flu shot or wear a mask around coworkers — and she doesn't plan to do either.

That could mean she's finally out of a job — she and two other coworkers expected to be dismissed two weeks ago for refusing the Lutheran Social Ministries of New Jersey's health rules. Instead, they were suspended through Monday.

"All three of us got a pretty blanket email (Monday)," Watson told New Jersey 101.5. "We were told to return to work tomorrow in compliance with the policy, with documentation saying we've either gotten a shot or we're wearing a mask."

Watson couldn't speak for her coworkers, but she said she hasn't gotten a shot. She said she wrote back to ask some questions about how the day would go, but they haven't yet been answered, "So I don't feel I can make an informed decision about a mask."

Will she be fired? It's the next step in her company's disciplinary process, she has said. "But I don't know what their plans are," she said.

Alanda Watson and fellow flu shot objectors Megan Duncan and Denise Mercurius were put on an unpaid, two-week suspension Nov. 6. The trio's dispute with Lutheran Social Ministries caught widespread media attention that week when they refused the health policy.

"I still firmly believe that wearing a mask in a business office is ridiculous," Watson said at the time. And she has no intention of getting a shot: "As far as I'm concerned, my body is more important than my paycheck."

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.

Ruth Lewis, executive director of marketing and communications for the Lutheran Social Ministries, previously told New Jersey 101.5 that any worker might occasionally come into contact with those vulnerable populations, though she couldn't address the trio's specific case as a personnel matter. Watson has said she and the other two refusing flu shots are office workers who wouldn't interact with those clients.

The company's opt-out policy — allowing flu shot exemptions for religious, medical and other reasons — is fairly broad, Lewis said. Lewis said to the best of her knowledge, no one who asked for an exemption was denied, but all who are granted exemptions must wear masks.

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 against a protected class, 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.


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