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The requirement that health care workers in Wisconsin be vaccinated against the flu would be illegal under legislation now being drafted by state Rep. Jeremy Thiesfeldt, R-Fond de Lac.
The bill goes further than banning mandatory flu shots in hospitals, nursing homes and other health care agencies, prohibiting all employers from requiring vaccinations.
If the legislation passes, Wisconsin would be the only state to ban employers from requiring flu shots.
Organizations would be required to provide information about the risks and benefits of vaccination and allow employees time to consider it. Employers could not demote, suspend, discharge or discriminate against any worker who refused a vaccination.
Thiesfeldt said he began drafting the legislation after several health care workers in his district complained that they were fired after refusing vaccinations.
“No one should have to choose between losing employment and having a large, ineffective vaccine injected into their body,” Thiesfeldt said in a statement.
Currently, in Wisconsin, an individual who refuses a flu shot may seek legal protection from the National Labor Relations Act or the Americans with Disabilities Act or, if a vaccination violates his or her religious beliefs, claim religious discrimination.
“There is not likely to be a retreat from these mandates once they become fully implemented and entrenched,” Thiesfeldt said. “Qualified, experienced and excellent health care workers are being dismissed from their positions or simply quitting to avoid the confrontation. Many are afraid to speak out for fear of retribution.”
Mandatory flu-vaccination policies have proliferated since Virginia Mason Medical Center in Seattle first instituted a mandate in 2004. Under that order, vaccination was considered a part of fitness for duty, and workers who refused the vaccine could be fired unless they had a medical or religious exemption. Since then, hospitals and health care systems in 45 states have implemented some kind of mandatory policy.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that health care workers also be vaccinated against hepatitis B and be immunized against measles, mumps, rubella and varicella (aka chickenpox).
Five states are considering legislation that would either require workers to get the flu vaccine or force employers to make the vaccine available, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Thiesfeldt said one objection he has to making the flu vaccine mandatory concerns its efficacy. The CDC estimated that the vaccine for the 2012-13 flu season was 56 percent effective, meaning those who got shots had a 56 percent less chance of being diagnosed with the flu.
Thiesfeldt noted that even though the flu vaccine is easier than ever to obtain, there has not been an appreciable reduction in flu cases. “The largest declines in incidence and deaths from influenza came prior to 1980, which is around the time the flu vaccine became widely used,” he said.
Thiesfeldt added that some people have been severely harmed by getting the flu vaccine—and have even died from it. He also cited the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) recommendation against mandatory influenza vaccinations for employees.
Vaccination proponents concede that vaccines are not wholly effective; however, they view vaccination programs—especially for health care professionals who often work with people whose immune systems are compromised—as a best practice.
“Although it’s far from perfect, flu vaccination is by far the best tool we have to protect from the flu,” the CDC stated.
Several professional organizations, including the Infectious Diseases Society of America and the American College of Physicians, endorse the notion that health care workers have a professional and ethical responsibility to help prevent the spread of infectious diseases among patients and themselves and that health care workers should receive annual influenza vaccinations as a condition of employment.
Roy Maurer is an online editor/manager for SHRM.
Follow him on Twitter @SHRMRoy.
R.I.: State Becomes First to Require Flu Shots of All Health Care Workers, SHRM Online Safety & Security Discipline, October 2012
Flu Shot Programs Required for Health Care Organizations, SHRM Online Safety & Security Discipline, July 2011
Is Requiring Flu Vaccinations Worth the Risk?, SHRM Online Safety & Security Discipline, February 2012
Experts: Encourage, Don’t Require, Flu Shots, SHRM Online Safety & Security Discipline, September 2011
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