What's next for unvaccinated, unemployed healthcare workers?

A growing number of hospitals and health systems have mandated COVID-19 vaccination as a condition of employment, leaving questions about what's next for a trove of unvaccinated healthcare workers who've been terminated or resigned.  

More than 2,500 hospitals and health systems in the U.S. had implemented mandatory vaccination policies for employees as of Sept. 27, according to the American Hospital Association. 

Earlier in September, CMS announced it will require vaccinations for more than 17 million healthcare workers at Medicare- and Medicaid-certified hospitals and other facilities, further limiting employment options in the healthcare sector for those who've decided not to get the shots. The agency plans to issue its interim final rule regarding the mandate later this month. 

Meanwhile, hospitals lost about 8,000 jobs in September, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. However, data on what proportion of those are related to noncompliance with vaccination mandates is not available. 

While many healthcare organizations have reported high compliance to the vaccination mandates, some larger systems are still suspending or parting ways with hundreds of unvaccinated workers. At New Hyde Park, N.Y.-based Northwell Health, 1,400 employees have departed for refusing to get vaccinated, and at Oakland, Calif.-based Kaiser Permanente, 2,200 workers were placed on unpaid leave Oct. 4, with a Dec. 1 deadline to comply with the vaccination mandate and return to work. 

Here are several potential next steps for healthcare's unvaccinated workforce:

Return to their employer 

Many health systems are leaving the door open for terminated employees to reapply for their positions if they get vaccinated. 

Northwell is seeing "more and more former employees changing their minds, getting vaccinated, and opting to return to work," Maxine Carrington, senior vice president and chief human resources officer at the system, told Becker's.

Ms. Carrington said she expects this trend to continue, especially as an increasing number of employers across industries also start requiring COVID-19 vaccination as a condition of employment.

Kaiser Permanente said the number of its employees on unpaid administrative leave is dropping as more team members opt to get vaccinated before the Dec. 1 deadline. 

"This number is declining daily, and as employees respond they may return to work," a spokesperson told Becker's. "We hope none of our employees will choose to leave their jobs rather than be vaccinated, but we won't know with certainty until then."

File for unemployment

In most states, workers are eligible for unemployment benefits if they are laid off, quit a job for a "good cause" or are fired for a reason other than "misconduct," employment experts told CNBC. As failure to comply with an employer's vaccination mandate would likely be deemed misconduct, most healthcare workers who opt not to get vaccinated likely won't be eligible to collect unemployment benefits, they said. However, some states — such as Washington and New York — have said they may make exceptions based on various factors.

Enter a competitive job market

Unvaccinated healthcare workers who do not return to their health system will have to compete for available jobs among a small number of employers or relocate to states where vaccination isn't required, according to Ms. Carrington.

Under an order from President Joe Biden, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration is drafting proposed rules that would require companies with more than 100 employees to require COVID-19 vaccinations or weekly testing. The standard would affect about 80 million workers nationwide, according to The New York Times. Once enacted, these rules could further limit job options for unvaccinated workers. 


Some people who can afford not to work have turned to activism full time, fighting for healthcare workers' medical freedoms. One such individual is Karen Roses, a former patient care technician at Northwell ​'s Peconic Bay Medical Center in Riverhead, N.Y.

"I'm one of the lucky ones because I can afford to not have to work for a little bit. I'm not supporting a family or raising children at this point," she told Fox News.


The unprecedented demands that caring for COVID-19 patients has placed on the healthcare workforce has led to concerns that some workers may retire early, accelerating a labor shortage. 

Even before vaccination mandates, more baby boomers, those born between 1946 and 1964,  were embracing early retirement. An analysis from Pew Research Center in November found 1.2 million more baby boomers retired compared to previous years. 

Now, some unvaccinated healthcare workers may choose to do the same, though retiring early would likely be a last resort for many people since it reduces benefits.

In Washington, where a vaccination mandate required most state and healthcare workers to be vaccinated by Oct. 18, the majority of state employees were in compliance, local NBC News affiliate KING 5 reports. 

A state employee who asked to remain anonymous for fear of losing her job told the news outlet she's considered retiring early, but hasn't made a decision because of the effects it would have on her retirement benefits. 

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