A Rock County Board committee wants the county to eliminate a COVID-19 vaccine mandate at its Rock Haven nursing home and reinstate several nursing home employees the county has laid off for months after the workers declined the vaccine earlier this year.
The board’s Health Services Committee on Wednesday voted 4-1 to recommend the county discontinue a policy that since early this year has forced staff at the county nursing home to receive the COVID-19 vaccine during scheduled immunization clinics or face layoff until they took the vaccine.
The recommendation, which county Administrator Josh Smith said could go in front of the full county board as early as May 27, would bar the county from requiring workers at the nursing home to receive the COVID-19 vaccine as a condition of employment.
In addition, the committee recommends the board approve reinstatement for workers who have continued to be laid off after they declined vaccines offered during two clinics at the nursing home earlier this year.
The decision comes about a week after the county received a notice of legal claim from a Fitchburg attorney over $550,000 in lost wages for 11 Rock Haven workers laid off this year after they declined the COVID-19 vaccine.
The claim argues that federal law doesn’t allow public or private entities to force workers to receive a vaccine that lacks full approval for use by the Food and Drug Administration.
Earlier this year, the county had mandated Rock Haven workers receive the Moderna vaccine, which remains authorized for emergency use only.
Smith wouldn’t comment on the legal filing and its claim for back pay for the laid-off employees. But he said, as of Wednesday, 14 Rock Haven employees continued to be laid off after they declined the vaccine earlier this year.
He said the policy change would mean the COVID-19 vaccine “is no longer a condition of employment” at Rock Haven.
Smith said if the board approves the policy change, all 14 employees still laid off would be offered reinstatement. But he said it is possible some could be offered different jobs at the nursing home.
Smith said Rock Haven has since filled a few positions that came open during a wave of layoffs and resignations tied to the vaccine mandate. Those open slots included a nursing home social worker and a food service worker, Smith indicated.
County officials and Rock Haven in a December notice to workers announced the vaccine mandate and told the workers that they would be laid off and not allowed to return to work unless they took the vaccine.
The nursing home is the only county employer so far that has mandated vaccines for workers.
County officials earlier had said the county mandated the vaccines because it sought to protect Rock Haven’s vulnerable, elderly residential population from COVID-19 infection.
After the county laid off a few dozen workers at Rock Haven for declining vaccines, a move which shortly afterward drew threats of legal action from employees, the county board reviewed a proposal to repeal the vaccine mandate.
The board ultimately voted to amend a resolution that would have repealed the mandate in a way that allowed some employees to decline the vaccine for religious and health exemptions. Other workers who didn’t meet the exemptions faced layoff for failing to get vaccines when Rock Haven made them available through clinics.
Earlier letters of demand the attorney filed with Rock County for at least one of 11 laid-off employees had asked for the county to reinstate the employee even if they hadn’t received the vaccine.
The notice the attorney filed last week lists claims in a potential lawsuit of $50,000 in back pay and reimbursement of legal costs for each worker, but it doesn’t mention reinstatement of any of the workers. The letter refers to each of the individuals as a “former employee” of Rock Haven.