(Update: Adding video, comments from protesters, St. Charles official)
Hospital system says 180 left recently; few denied exceptions but dozens didn't turn in forms; 940 vacancies; rally on street
BEND, Ore. (KTVZ) -- A row of shoes, left behind by now-former hospital staff, lined the edge of Neff Road near St. Charles Bend as protesters rallied against the state and hospital's vaccine mandate on Monday's deadline.
“Those are their shoes, their work shoes that they wore while working for the hospital, they’re turning them in," said Chris Robson, a now-former St. Charles volunteer. "It’s a symbol of, ‘I’m done.’”
As the state vaccination mandate deadline for all health care and public school workers and thousands of state employees arrived, St. Charles Health System reported that 93.5% of its caregivers are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, while another 51 have started getting the shots -- and 180 have left the organization.
More than 200 were granted religious exceptions, a handful got medical exceptions and dozens of others never completed the process, St. Charles said.
Lorna Mulkey, a nurse at St. Charles for the past 16 years, said she was approved for a religious exemption, but she did not believe the accommodations were fair. If granted an exception, caregivers were offered an accommodation, which could include reassignment to a remote role -- or an unpaid leave of absence.
"With what we do for a living, that doesn't really work in a remote way," said Mulkey, who was placed on unpaid leave as of Monday.
Word of the numbers came as dozens rallied on streets by the Bend hospital -- some simply in support of the workers, with others were strongly opposed to and upset by the state mandate and its impacts on the hospital and elsewhere.
"This is going to hurt the community, it is a terrible time," said Mulkey.
In August, Gov. Kate Brown announced a health and safety rule that required employees in health care and public school settings and thousands of state Executive Branch employees to provide proof of vaccination by Oct. 18, .
Caregivers were provided the option of becoming fully vaccinated or applying for a religious or medical exception.
St. Charles said 84 caregivers applied for medical exceptions, of which five were approved, 17 were denied and 62 didn’t complete and return the necessary forms. The four-hospital system said another 271 caregivers applied for religious exceptions, of which 211 were approved, five were declined and 55 either didn’t complete and return the necessary forms, or were asked to elaborate on their application and did not.
Of the 323 caregivers who applied for exceptions, 49 were reasonably accommodated with remote work and 101 were provided an unpaid leave of absence, St. Charles said. Of that same group of 323 caregivers, 98 chose to start their vaccination series after initially requesting an exception.
"These are spread throughout the organization," St. Charles Chief Physician Executive Dr. Jeff Absalon told NewsChannel 21. "We’re continuing to assess where we have impact in opportunities moving forward."
Those who were unable to comply "are considered to have voluntarily resigned their positions with St. Charles, and their employment ended after their last scheduled shift," the health system said.
So far this month, 180 caregivers have left the organization. Of that group, 134 caregivers’ employment ended during the week leading up to Monday's deadline.
“We can’t be certain how many of those 180 caregivers left the organization because of the mandate,” said Vice President of Human Resources Rebecca Berry. “But we believe most of those who left us last week were impacted by this rule.”
Of those who left the organization, 111 were full-time, 18 were part-time and 50 were relief workers. Relief caregivers are not assigned regular shifts and work on an as-needed basis.
The hospital reported a total workforce as of Monday of 4,533 caregivers, about 100 fewer than this year's report of 4,626 workers as it remained atop Economic Development for Central Oregon's list of the largest private employers (Adobe PDF).
“We are grateful to the overwhelming majority of our caregivers who made the decision to get vaccinated, protecting themselves, their patients and our community,” Absalon said in Monday's news release. “But we also recognize that our caregivers had a choice, and we respect each person, no matter what decision they made. We sincerely thank those caregivers for their service, especially throughout the pandemic. This hasn’t been an easy time for any of us.”
Including the recent resignations, St. Charles said it's now striving to fill 940 open positions, and about 200 people are in the process of being hired. Last week, the organization said, it made the decision to raise its minimum wage from $15.23 to $18 an hour, effective Oct. 31, "to remain competitive in the local market and bolster retention."
At the same time, the organization said it "is aggressively recruiting for these roles, it is also leveraging traveling health care workers to fill staffing gaps."
Absalon said he's never seen a situation like this before.
“These are the circumstances of our environment, and we’re of course working hard to secure the highest level of care everywhere that we do that,” he said.
A handful of supporters gathered at a different entrance on Monday morning to cheer on the remaining health care workers.
St. Charles said it also continues to be supported by 80 Oregon National Guard troops, who are currently planning to leave Oct. 31, and 120 state-allocated traveling health care workers, who are scheduled through Nov. 22.
As for other Central Oregon health care providers, the clinic administrator for Family Choice Urgent Care in Bend and Redmond told NewsChannel 21 about 90 percent of its staff is vaccinated. The remaining 10 percent were given an accommodation.