01STOCK_ROCKHAVEN01

Rock Haven

JANESVILLE

A lawyer is citing a state bill that bars government officials from mandating COVID-19 vaccines in a push to reinstate several Rock Haven employees who were laid off at the county nursing home after declining the vaccine earlier this year.

In an email to Rock County Corporation Counsel Richard Greenlee, Fitchburg attorney Michael Anderson mentioned a bill that passed the Legislature on Tuesday and has gone to Gov. Tony Evers’ desk. If signed into law by the governor, it would prohibit county health or state health officials from mandating COVID-19 vaccines.

Anderson’s email to the county, obtained by The Gazette on Wednesday, asked the county how it intends to handle the layoffs and lost wages and benefits for the Rock Haven workers if that bill—and a companion bill prohibiting private employers from mandating vaccines—become law.

Anderson suggested that he is prepared to file a notice of claim—a legal precursor to a potential lawsuit—if the county won’t settle with 15 nursing home workers Anderson represents.

He said most have been out of work since they declined to get the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine earlier this year, violating Rock County’s vaccination mandate for Rock Haven employees.

“If there is a way to resolve this without my filing and serving 13 to 15 notices of claim in early May, I would appreciate trying to do that,” Anderson wrote in the email, which was dated Wednesday.

Anderson is one of two lawyers who in February threatened legal action after Rock Haven workers were laid off, quit or said they agreed to get the vaccine against their will to avoid being disciplined.

Anderson and a New York firm separately are arguing that federal guidelines prohibit employers from requiring workers to get vaccines that have been approved for emergency use only.

The county has allowed some Rock Haven employees to decline for health or religious reasons, exemptions allowed under law, but others who failed to meet exemptions were laid off.

Anderson said as of this week, the Rock Haven workers he represents have not backed down from their opposition to the mandate.

“I want my clients to get their jobs back or get reimbursed for the money they’ve lost,” he said. “I want a neutral (disciplinary) recommendation for them because, arguably, they’ve been laid off for cause.”

As of Wednesday morning, Anderson said the employment status of his clients who were laid off had not changed. The employees’ duties range from nursing to custodial and kitchen staff.

Anderson said Rock County officials had not responded to his letters or emails about the mandate or threats of legal action, other than to note the county had received the letters.

Greenlee did not immediately return phone calls Wednesday.

As of Wednesday afternoon, Evers had not signaled whether he would approve or veto the bill that bars government health officials from mandating COVID-19 vaccines.

The Legislature’s vote fell heavily along party lines, with overwhelming support from Republican lawmakers but only a few Democrats.

If the bill did become law, it’s not clear when or for how long it would be enforceable, and it’s not clear whether the bills would apply retroactively to public organizations such as Rock County and Rock Haven that have already enforced COVID-19 vaccination mandates.

A handful of private nursing facilities told The Gazette earlier this year they would recommend employees get the vaccine, but they wouldn’t require it.

Rock Haven recently hired a new director after it operated for months under interim leadership. The county also launched a third-party review of complaints by Rock Haven workers that they have faced bullying or retaliation in the workplace, although the county has said that review isn’t linked to the controversy over the vaccine mandate.

Anderson has until early May to file notices of claim over the Rock Haven workers’ complaints, but he said it’s possible he could file notices sooner than that. Rock County would be required to respond within 120 days of receiving a notice.

Anderson said aside from his Rock Haven clients, he’s been working with an employee from a southern Wisconsin orthodontist practice whose owner had sought to mandate employee vaccination for COVID-19. Anderson said that owner eventually backed down from the mandate.

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