Gov. Kathy Hochul’s mandate that all health care workers receive at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine took effect Monday, potentially affecting hundreds of UB-affiliated health care employees.
SUNY-affiliated health care employees’ “non-compliance will result in their immediate suspension and pending termination on Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2021,” reads a memo from SUNY Chancellor Jim Malatras to the CEOs of all SUNY hospitals.
While UB doesn’t own its own hospital, unlike other SUNY schools such as Stony Brook University, some students, faculty and staff work for Erie County Medical Clinic, Buffalo General Medical Center, UB Dental and other patient-facing health care practices.
“All students, faculty and staff who work in these clinical settings will [must] comply with the state mandate,” Cory Nealon, a UB spokesperson, said.
It remains unclear exactly how many UB-affiliated health care employees have been suspended for non-compliance since Tuesday. This may be partly because UB faculty who work in clinical settings are considered “employees of the hospitals for the purposes of the mandate,” according to John DellaContrada, a UB spokesperson.
Approximately 200 UB employees represented by United University Professions’ Buffalo Health Sciences Chapter, which represents faculty from the dental, medical, nursing, pharmacy and public health schools, had not yet submitted verification of their vaccination records as of last Thursday, according to Phil Glick, president of the Buffalo Health Sciences Chapter for UUP. That number has likely dropped, as many UB-affiliated health care employees likely either submitted proof of vaccination — a process Glick described as “pretty easy” — or were among the thousands of health care workers statewide who received their first dose in the days before the mandate.
Vaccination rates in Erie and Niagara Counties also increased in the days before the mandate took effect, according to The Buffalo News.
As such, Nealon was optimistic about UB employees’ compliance with the mandate.
“The vast majority of UB employees — more than 80% — have provided proof they are fully vaccinated,” Nealon said. “The percentage is higher among UB physicians, nurses, dentists and other UB employees who work in health care settings.”
Nealon also predicted “the mandate will have a very limited, if any, effect on students who work in health care fields” because vaccination was already required for UB students.
As of Tuesday evening, Glick did not know how many employees were suspended due to non-compliance.
The mandate went into effect after days of negotiations last week, which Glick described as “a game of chicken,” over how to enforce the mandate between New York State and several labor unions, including UUP, the bargaining unit for SUNY faculty and professional staff members.
“UUP strongly believes that everyone should get the COVID-19 vaccine as soon as possible,” Mike Lisi, UUP’s media and publications director, said. “That said, as a union, UUP must protect its members. Due process rights are at the foundation of organized labor. So, without those, UUP could not support the governor’s mandate.”
According to Lisi, UUP and the governor reached an agreement Friday, under which non-compliant employees will be suspended for two weeks without pay while they await a disciplinary hearing — non-compliant individuals could previously be fired without due process under the mandate. Workers are able to use paid vacation or leave credits and will retain their health coverage during their suspension. UUP will also continue to represent suspended workers during their disciplinary hearings.
Unvaccinated UUP members who fall under the requirement, however, shouldn’t expect to keep their jobs.
“The end result of the mandate is that unvaccinated employees who refuse to get vaccinated may — and probably will — be terminated,” Lisi said.
Nevertheless, UUP President Fred Kowal declared the agreement a victory for the union.
“This is an important win for all of us at UUP,” Kowal said in a video on UUP’s YouTube page. “Our negotiations cemented workers’ rights to due process and stopped a substantial overreach by the state. While I firmly believe that every New Yorker should get a COVID-19 vaccination, it is also fundamentally important that we never back down in our fight to protect the rights of our members.”
The governor’s press office did not respond to a request for comment.
Glick, however, remained worried that dozens, if not hundreds, of disciplinary hearings could overwhelm the union.
“We have two lawyers to help members [of UUP’s two Buffalo chapters],” Glick said. “If they do one or two hearings a week, [that’s] usually a lot. So, imagine getting [dozens or hundreds of] meetings scheduled in a short period of time. It’s seemingly impossible that they’ll get them in very quickly. And then, I’ve been told that if we try to appeal the discipline, the process takes nine to 12 months, which will be unpaid leave. There’s a lot at stake for a lot of people.”
Health care workers who were fired for non-compliance with the vaccine mandate “won’t be able to receive unemployment insurance without a valid medical accommodation from a doctor,” according to CBS News.
The vaccine mandate led to labor shortages at some — but not all — area hospitals, according to The Buffalo News. Among those hardest hit is ECMC, UB’s primary teaching hospital, where 176 hospital workers — 5% of the total staff — were put on a 30-day unpaid leave for non-compliance. On the other hand, Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center, another of UB’s clinical training sites, hasn’t put any workers on leave due to a 97% vaccination rate among their staff.
Despite ECMC’s affiliation with the university, those laid off for non-compliance with the mandate weren’t necessarily employed by, or directly affiliated with, UB.
Gov. Hochul signed an emergency order Monday deploying the National Guard and recruiting health care professionals from other states and countries to ease expected staff shortages in the state’s hospitals and nursing homes, according to WBFO.
“With potential staff shortages at area hospitals and nursing homes, we anticipate UB employees who work in these facilities will play an even greater role in helping Western New York respond to the pandemic,” Nealon said.
The governor’s mandate did not allow for religious exemptions, although workers who have submitted their requests will be allowed to work until at least Oct. 12 due to a judge’s order in a federal lawsuit challenging the mandate’s lack of a religious exemption. The order is expected to temper the labor shortage.
Glick, however, has an easy solution to all the chaos surrounding the mandate: “Just get vaccinated, and all this will go away.”
Grant Ashley is a senior news/features editor and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Grant Ashley is an assistant features editor for The Spectrum. He is a political science major and a (mediocre) Spanish minor. He enjoys taking long bike rides and recreating Bob Ross paintings in crayon.