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Judge denies union's motion to block Essentia Health flu-shot mandate

DULUTH, Minn. — With less than a week remaining until Essentia Health's flu shot requirement takes effect, a judge has denied a union's motion to block it.

U.S. District Judge Wilhelmina M. Wright, in an order dated Nov. 9, said the United Steelworkers had failed to establish that a preliminary injunction was needed to "prevent arbitration from being rendered a meaningless ritual."

Essentia has announced that flu shots would be required this year as a condition for working or serving with the health system, with the exception of those who obtain religious or medical exemptions. The policy applies to employees, students who train at Essentia facilities, vendors at the facilities and volunteers who serve with Essentia programs.

According to the union's request for an injunction, Essentia had said all employees who were not vaccinated and hadn't obtained an exemption by Nov. 10 would be fired on Nov. 20 — next Monday.

But Essentia spokeswoman Miranda Anderson said on Tuesday, Nov. 14, the health system still hopes to retain employees who didn't make the Nov. 10 deadline.

"The purpose of the policy wasn't to terminate any of our valued colleagues," Anderson said. "We're vaccinating people every day this week."

Even employees who show up on Monday and get a flu shot won't be fired, Anderson said. Nor will employees who have sought a religious or medical exemption for whom the process hasn't been completed. She confirmed, though, that employees who had taken no action to either get a flu shot or an exemption by Monday would lose their jobs.

As of Tuesday afternoon, 96.7 percent of Essentia employees had either been immunized or approved for an exemption, Anderson said.

But with more than 14,000 employees across four states, a 96.7 percent compliance rate could mean a few hundred Essentia jobs lost on Monday.

One employee who says she didn't seek an exemption and won't get a shot is Sharon Beaulieu, a medical records clerk in the Essentia Health West Annex, an office and warehouse facility in West Duluth.

Beaulieu, 68, said she doesn't object to the influenza vaccination per se — she always has gotten flu shots in the past. But she objects to being required to get a shot, Beaulieu said.

"This is about the abuse of power," she said. "Forcing a person to inject a substance, whether they want to or not ... is, I think, an infringement on my human rights."

She disputes Essentia's claim that there's a legitimate public health basis for the policy, but if there were, it wouldn't apply in her case, Beaulieu said. She works virtually alone in a late shift in a warehouse where no patients are ever treated.

She has gotten an email from Essentia telling her she will be terminated on Monday, Beaulieu said. But she plans to show up for her 3 p.m. shift on that day.

If she does lose her job, Beaulieu doesn't know what she'll do, she said. She realizes she's old enough to retire, but she enjoys what she does and wants to keep working. She hasn't decided if she would look for another job.

Justin Cummins, a Minneapolis attorney representing the United Steelworkers in their case against Essentia, did not immediately respond to a request for a comment on the judge's ruling in that case.

The union represents about 2,000 Essentia employees.

Meanwhile, the Minnesota Nurses Association canceled a negotiation session with Essentia over the issue that had been scheduled for Nov. 13, union spokesman Rick Fuentes said. The two sides held talks on Nov. 7, but made no progress, according to Fuentes.

The MNA represents about 2,000 nurses.

The union on Nov. 2 filed an unfair labor practices charge against Essentia with the National Labor Relations Board. As of Tuesday, no action had been scheduled in that case.

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