“I love it. I love my job. I love what I do, and it’s been very difficult. Sorry.”
The pediatric nurse, who had worked at Children’s Wisconsin for 12 years, fought back tears as she emphasized her passion for treating sick children to the chaplain and human resources representative who questioned whether her religious beliefs were sincere enough to earning him an exemption from the Milwaukee Hospital’s vaccination mandate, which went into effect in November.
This nurse, whose religious exemption appeal interview was shared with The Federalist on condition of anonymity, was eventually granted an exemption after being first denied, then on appeal, then questioned by the two representatives of the hospital on his religious beliefs. Some of his colleagues weren’t so lucky.
Of the five call-in interview tapes reviewed by The Federalist, only two of the employees were granted religious exemptions despite the same general questions posed to each of the child workers and similar themes in each of their responses. The other three were refused.
Staff were informed in July of the vaccine mandate, which required them to be vaccinated against Covid-19 in mid-November. Employees had until Sept. 1 to apply for a religious exemption, according to a vaccine brief that Children’s WI President and CEO Peggy Troy emailed to all employees at the facility. hospital, and they were informed of the decisions later.
Some of those who were turned down have started looking for new jobs, Alyssa Pollow, a nurse practitioner and former Children’s Wisconsin provider, told The Federalist. However, others wanted to stay and appealed, especially if they had seniority.
To appeal a denial, employees had to email Employee Health and Wellness and Human Resources, who would set up Zoom interviews to grill applicants on their religious beliefs and point out apparent contradictions.
These interviews were conducted by Chaplain Ian Butts and someone from HR, such as Sharyl Niebler or Staci Benz, but Butts conducted most of the questioning. The questions included details of employees’ personal religious beliefs and their vaccination records, with Butts pressing what he saw as contradictions.
Two particularly important questions concerned the details of how employees would keep their patients safe without being vaccinated, involving the moral implication of refusing a vaccine, as well as how they could work for a hospital that demanded something. something as contrary to their personal beliefs as a condition of employment.
“In my opinion, he’s so above the way he asks these questions,” Pollow told The Federalist. “And for him to be their religious arbiter whose religious beliefs are more virtuous than someone else is such an invasion of privacy.”
“It seems so intrusive,” she added, even calling it an “assault on religion.”
Butts and the HR representative would then forward the information they gathered to an overarching committee called the COVID Religious Waiver Committee, whose members were hidden, shielding the adjudicators from liability.
The committee also offered no transparency regarding why employees were denied exemptions. “Because Children’s must preserve the integrity of its process for reviewing waiver requests, the specific reasons for denials are not shared,” the Covid-19 Employee Health and Wellbeing team wrote in response to an employee’s question regarding this person’s denial of religious derogation.
Children’s Wisconsin did not respond to questions from The Federalist about who was on the waiver committee. He also wouldn’t say how many people have applied for religious exemptions, how many have been approved, and how the current number of vacancies compares to pre-pandemic levels.
“All staff at Children’s Wisconsin are currently complying with our vaccine requirements,” children’s spokesperson Andy Brodzeller responded to The Federalist’s inquiry. “Over 98% of our team members met our November 15 deadline to get vaccinated or have an exemption approved. … We were sad to see the less than 100 people leave our organization when the requirement came into effect, but respect their decision to do so.
Children’s response, however, leaves many questions unanswered, such as how many people were not included in the denominator of that 98% because they quit after learning about the terms of reference, well before the deadline. of November 15, without even trying to acquire an exemption. And the language about “100 people leave[ing]involves a voluntary decision, so how many others have been fired? It is eerily reminiscent of public relations words conducted by Gundersen Health Systems, another hospital system in Wisconsin, to cover up the staffing crisis of its vaccine mandate.
[READ: In Wisconsin, Hospital Shortages Aren’t From Covid, They’re From Vaccine Mandates]
Judging by the disparity in results for the five aforementioned employees who appealed despite the similarities in their responses, it appears that Children’s does not have a strong or consistent rationale for its waiver decisions.
Pollow said that when a manager received a list of a dozen employees she was going to lose, she demanded a meeting with decision makers, where she “raised the hell up” about the need for all those members. staff to stay on their team. The following week, Pollow said, the majority of those staff members had their appeals approved, leading her to believe the COVID Religious Waiver Committee was making its decisions in an effort to appease officials in certain departments. who were willing to stick their necks out for their employees. Or maybe more likely they were trying to “spread their losses across the departments”.
This is because we have seen the catastrophic effects of these vaccination mandates and other poor management and working conditions, which have left other hospitals severely understaffed.
Gundersen Health Systems in La Crosse, Wisconsin suffered a severe staff haemorrhage due to the vaccine mandate, contrary to its misleading self-reporting about it. These layoffs coupled with workers leaving for low wages have led to underserved patients.
“Within the hospital, nursing shortages have led to dangerous staffing situations where nurses and CNAs are forced to take on more patients than is safe due to the lack of nursing staff present. Patients are forgotten on bedpans or fall because there are simply not enough staff to care for them safely,” a former Gundersen nurse wrote in an impact statement. community. Although she obtained a religious exemption from this hospital, she was so disgusted by the language of the letter that she resigned anyway.
Following the departure of low-wage staff, she said nurses should use the bare minimum of sheets, even going so far as to make makeshift pillowcases from hospital gowns. One weekend in October, Gundersen had to close a dozen beds due to a shortage of nurses, she said, adding that she also canceled heart valve replacement surgeries because she couldn’t. did not have enough postoperative staff.
Like Gundersen, Children’s Wisconsin appears to be struggling to fill staffing gaps. Even in September, the hospital wings made desperate pleas for help, captured in the screenshots below. After refusing religious exemptions and therefore losing more staff, Children’s had to get creative.
Senior management launched “Helping Hands” where employees could sign up for 2-4 hour shifts to complete necessary tasks left undone by understaffing, such as replenishing laundry, folding laundry , cleaning the floors or working in the cafeteria. This email from late January states that “only 92 out of 234 shifts are currently filled”.
Like other hospitals in Wisconsin, Children’s also tries to recruit travel nurses to fill vacancies, although many travel nurses can evade vaccination requirements by being employed not directly by hospitals but by travel agencies. trips. (Below is an example of a Gundersen nurse who said she was fired in November for not being vaccinated and has now agreed to a 13-week travel RN contract with the same hospital when she was still not vaccinated.)
Not to mention that travel nurses don’t specialize in any particular institution, especially pediatrics, which means that when hospitals outsource this care, it can cause patients to suffer unnecessarily.
“I think they’re so desperate and they know they’ve created a staff shortage crisis,” Pollow said.
Pollow no longer works at the Children’s, but that’s not because she was denied an exemption or refused to get vaccinated. In fact, she has been vaccinated since January 2021. In December, once the mandate was established, however, she stepped down.
His resignation is noteworthy because it suggests employees in his situation likely weren’t included in Children’s self-declaration “less than 100 people are leaving.”[ing] when the requirement came into effect. Their departures are scattered and do not coincide with the entry into force of the mandate.
“For vaxxed people, we’re just sick of the BS,” she said. “It really opened our eyes to the toxic environment our senior leaders have created and blindly imposing things and disregarding the true quality of care that is being affected.”
For this reason, Children’s is probably not done losing staff. Pollow said more people are still employed but have one foot outside. Some of them have been lucky enough to have their religious waivers approved, but are wrestling with how long they will stay because the hospital mandates weekly testing for the unvaccinated only – a serious double standard since the vaccinated can still catch and spread Covid.
“We’re definitely still seeing the effects of that,” Pollow said. “And we will continue to see it for a very long time.”