WAUSAU, Wisconsin (WSAW) – Aspirus Health is conducting an internal investigation after one of its directors sent an email with the names of employees who did not receive the COVID-19 vaccine.
A source with knowledge of the news told 7 Investigations that they were concerned but would not reveal their identity for fear of retaliation. The source alleged that the email violated employee privacy.
According to the source, the director of the Aspirus At Home program sent an email to the program’s 59 employees on June 21. The email referred to a memo sent a week earlier detailing new procedures Aspirus was introducing for vaccinated and unvaccinated workers.
An Aspirus spokesman told 7 Investigates that employees who have been vaccinated will have a sticker on their badge, while those who are not will not have a sticker. The spokesman clarified that vaccinated workers do not have to wear the sticker if they don’t want to, but he has not heard from anyone who refuses to wear a sticker.
In the email to Aspirus At Home staff, the director stated that the staff health department was behind in launching the sticker program, but that the At Home department will begin distributing stickers the next day. Then he listed the 10 employees who were not vaccinated at the time.
“If the employer reveals information obtained during a confidential medical investigation, there could be an ADA violation,” said Matthew White, director of the investigative bureau for the Equality Division of the Department of Workforce Development.
White stated that employers have the right to ask workers for medical information, for example to provide disabled accommodation or to create safety logs, in this case COVID-19 logs. He said employees can also be asked to respond. However, the Americans with Disabilities Act requires that medical information be kept confidential and segregated from their personnel record so that it is not part of the promotion decisions for that employee.
“If I ask all of my employees, ‘Are you vaccinated?’ and 10 of them say, ‘No, I haven’t been vaccinated’ but they don’t tell me why, two or three of these workers might not have been vaccinated because they had a legitimate disability-related reason not to do it and by revealing that I show their disabilities to their colleagues or the public, “White explained.
He said a big misconception by many employees is that their medical information is completely private from their employer and that HIPAA rules apply to their employer. HIPAA laws only apply to health insurance companies such as insurance companies, most health care providers, and health care clearinghouses. While Aspirus is a healthcare provider, anyone who works for Aspirus is considered an employer.
Confidential medical information of the employee can be shared with other employees, such as supervisors, if necessary. If an employee complained about this to the Equal Rights Division, it would take action.
“It will be a fact-based investigation into who knew about it, who needed to know what the reason for the disclosure was,” he said. “For example, it may be relevant for HR to share someone’s vaccination status with their frontline manager when that person needs shelter, such as wearing a mask in the workplace because they are not vaccinated,” another type of change the work environment that the frontline manager needs to know about, ”said White.
There are also cases when this information does not need to be disclosed, such as when employees take family-related sick leave. In this scenario, it often only needs to be communicated that the employee is not at work, as there is no obligation to accommodate.
Regarding Aspirus’ sticker program, White said there was nothing legally wrong with it. He said employers can incentivize their employees to get vaccinated, including giving $ 100 bonuses to people who get vaccinated. He said that unless the incentive is so good that it is essentially imperative, such as that unvaccinated employees must work overtime.
The source told 7 Investigates that the director of Aspirus At Home used “defamatory language and discrimination” and essentially equated individuals with “a bad person” for not getting vaccinated. The source said staff were not asked to give reasons for not having been vaccinated.
Aspirus Health sent a statement in response:
“At Aspirus, protecting the safety of our patients, employees and communities is a top priority. This is why we strongly recommend people get the Covid-19 vaccine, which is safe and effective in preventing infection and the spread of disease.
While some health systems make Covid-19 vaccination mandatory for their employees, Aspirus is currently giving team members a choice. We will strive to continue increasing vaccination rates through education and guidance, and we will follow strict Covid-19 protocols and precautions in accordance with CDC guidelines for the safety of our patients and communities.
Aspirus will conduct a thorough investigation into the problem you (7 panelists) raised. “
Employers may by law require employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19. Under the ADA, employees have the right not to be vaccinated because of a relevant disability or because of a genuine religious or ethical belief as set out in Title 7. However, the precautions an employer must take under these two laws are different.
“The demands on the employer are much lower than in cases of religion and belief,” said White. “In principle, accommodation cannot be owed if it causes more than minor costs at all, while according to the disability law the employer may have to incur considerable expenses for the accommodation of a handicap.”
However, there is one exception to these exceptions. Employers are allowed to have a policy that requires workers to be vaccinated if they pose a direct threat to their colleagues or the public.
“If you want to claim that refusal to vaccinate an employee is a direct threat, you must submit to this analysis by the EEOC.”
These factors include determining the duration of the threat, the severity of the threat and the likelihood of occurrence, and the imminent threat. White stated that if the employer determines that this worker is a direct threat, the employer may still need to take precautions, even if that person is not disabled under the ADA.
One of the biggest questions White said his department got out of this pandemic was about pregnant people.
White said that people who don’t want to get vaccinated because they want to get pregnant aren’t protected as a disability under the ADA, adding that vaccine research has shown it doesn’t improve people’s ability to get pregnant impaired. The vaccines have also been shown to be safe for pregnant women, despite being protected under the ADA. Pregnancy is considered a temporary disability and employers must make arrangements for pregnant women.
White requested that people be able to contact his department if they have any questions or concerns about their specific workplace scenario. The DWD also has answers here to frequently asked questions.
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