NASHVILLE — Melissa Fisher would rather be fired than get one of the COVID-19 vaccines.
That scenario nearly became reality. Fisher, a 53-year-old caregiver from Cleveland, Tennessee, and her employer, an assisted living facility in nearby Athens, are at an impasse over vaccine requirements.
Their deadlock is an example of one of the latest coronavirus clashes to emerge as the country navigates year two of a deadly outbreak and the ongoing tension between pandemic policies and individual freedoms.
“I do not want to get the COVID vaccine at all,” Fisher said.
She is an apostolic holiness Christian and says the COVID-19 vaccines go against her religious beliefs. But Enlivant, the Chicago-based company that operates the senior living community, expects its employees to roll up their sleeves.
“We require all team members to receive at least their first COVID immunization by June 1st,” Jeremy Ross, a spokesperson for Enlivant, said in a statement.
“While we cannot comment on a specific employee, we do evaluate each religious/medical accommodation request on a case-by-case basis and if we are able to do so safely, we will.”
Religious exemptions? Here’s what the experts say about vaccines
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has granted emergency use authorizations to three COVID-19 vaccines. It’s a designation that has sparked debate among legal scholars and health experts about whether employers can require vaccines authorized for emergency use. Experts have come down on both sides of the argument.
Whether employers can require their staff to get one of the COVID-19 vaccines is a question keeping Nashville labor and employment attorney Rebecca W. Demaree busy. Inquiries from companies figuring out coronavirus rules for their employees have ramped up in the last couple of weeks, said Demaree.
The outbreak in Tennessee is improving. In Nashville, pandemic limits on businesses and gatherings recently lifted as did the city’s indoor face mask mandate.
Although COVID-19 shots are readily available, vaccine hesitancy remains an issue, especially in rural parts of the state that are home to Christians and conservatives. Leaders and public health officials have encouraged Tennesseans to get one of the coronavirus shots, but Gov. Bill Lee has consistently said immunization should be a personal choice.
So can employers fire staff who refuse immunization?
“It depends,” Demaree said.
Private employers can, Demaree said. But they do have to follow applicable accommodation requests for medical and religious exemptions, she said.
While an employee can ask for a religious exemption, they won’t automatically get one. There’s a balancing test. The company’s legitimate business reason for requiring a vaccine is weighed against the employee’s request to accommodate their sincerely held religious belief, Demaree said.
“It’s called an undue burden analysis,” she said.
The type of business and its customers are factors too. An employee working at a health care facility that serves a vulnerable population would have a higher hurdle to clear for a religious exemption than a employee making calls remotely for a telemarketing firm, Demaree said.
“When you counter weigh that with the health and safety of the population that they are hired to care for and to serve, I think that’s a pretty high burden to get over for a religious exemption,” Demaree said.
Martha L. Boyd, a shareholder in the Labor & Employment Group at a law firm in Nashville, echoed Demaree’s assessment.
For a religious exemption, an employer may want to consider alternatives to termination first, Boyd said in an email. Companies could weigh options like whether a leave of absence is possible, mask wearing as an alternative or a change of duties, she said.
“Maybe the answer to all these questions is no — but the employer needs to think through them and consider how, if at all, the employee’s request for exemption because of a sincerely-held religious belief may be accommodated,” Boyd said.
A letter from a pastor
Fisher found out about the vaccine requirement during a staff meeting. A company flyer reiterated it. She realized she would probably be finding a new job.
But first Fisher asked for a religious exemption and provided Enlivant with a letter from her pastor. Fisher is a member of Lighthouse Church International in Charleston, Tennessee, a town of less than 1,000 people about 45 miles northeast of Chattanooga, Tenn.
“As a tenant of our Faith we are opposed to the COVID-19 vaccine,” Pastor Mitchell Wright said in the April 28 letter.
“We believe that forced vaccination is in direct violation of our religious rights and is opposed to our freedom of religion. This letter is to serve as an official notice from our church leadership that Melissa Fisher is within her legitimate rights and is practicing her faith in accordance with the Holy Scripture and the Constitution of the United States of America.”
All three of the vaccines were vetted in clinical trials, met the FDA’s rigorous scientific standards and are considered safe and effective, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Fisher objects to all of them. Not only does she think it is too early in the life of the vaccines to get one of them, she specifically takes issue with the use of mRNA in the making of the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines.
“I don’t want to take it and I don’t want to risk what the outcomes are going to be down the road,” Fisher said.
She also is concerned about the “mark of the beast.” Fisher said some of her church’s elders and her pastor have compared the vaccines to the apocalyptic prophecy in the New Testament’s Book of Revelation.
“I do believe it’s coming to be that kind of thing,” Fisher said.
They are not the only Christians to raise this concern amid the pandemic. But the link is not a widely accepted belief. Scholars have written explanations rejecting it as leaders of the top denominations in the country urge people to get vaccinated.
Fisher, who wears two masks while caring for residents, met with her company’s human resources department about her request for a religious exemption. She suggested taking a weekly COVID-19 test instead.
But the company rejected regular testing as an option. Fisher received an email from human resources on May 10 notifying her of their decision.
“To best protect our residents, employees, and visitors, all Enlivant employees at your Community must be vaccinated. Therefore, we cannot grant an accommodation of remaining unvaccinated,” the email states. “Because we are unable to accommodate you, please be advised that we will begin recruiting for your role. As such, we may administratively end the employment relationship on or before June 1, 2021.”
Fisher is upset, but will not compromise her principles. Her plan was to let Enlivant fire her.
“We have a freedom of choice in this country. That’s what our forefathers fought and died for, and right now I think it’s being taken away from us with this vaccine,” Fisher said. “I wouldn’t do anything to jeopardize my residents’ health and safety and that’s not my intention of not taking the vaccine.”
Fisher thinks wearing masks and gloves at work should be sufficient.
But Enlivant disagrees. The human resources email says being unvaccinated is too risky and leading authorities say the vaccines are the best way to stop the spread of the coronavirus. Health and safety is key, said Ross, Enlivant’s spokesperson.
“As a healthcare company, we provide direct care to vulnerable senior residents, who trust us to provide a safe and healthy living environment,” Ross said. “We are equally dedicated to providing a safe and healthy work environment for our valued employees. These are our first priorities and the COVID vaccine is key to ensuring those priorities.”
As June 1 loomed, Fisher remained steadfast in her decision to let the company fire her.
That changed Friday. Human resources sent her another email, explaining they were extending the immunization deadline to Aug. 1. She could potentially work for Enlivant for another two months instead of just 10 days.
But that won’t be happening. Fisher will quit instead. She has a new job that starts June 8.
Follow Holly Meyer on Twitter: @HollyAMeyer.