Three office workers from a social service agency have been suspended without pay for a week as they refused to take a flu shot.
When the workers return to work, it is expected that they will be fired unless the agency change their policy.
Megan Duncan, Alanda Watson and Denise Mercurius — whose case was profiled by NJ Advance Media Thursday — said they were informed of the discipline during a meeting at their Burlington Township office building, the headquarters for Lutheran Social Ministries of New Jersey.
The agency, which runs two nursing homes, an adoption agency and an array of other services throughout the state, implemented the policy for all employees to reduce the risk of sickening clients, some of whom are under stress or have compromised immune systems, the agency’s president has said.
Duncan, Watson and Mercurius, who have worked at the agency for years, say they should not be forced to receive the flu vaccine, and they contend that wearing a mask in an office setting is embarrassing, ostracizing and impractical.
In individual meetings with the women Friday morning, the agency’s director of human resources told them they are valued employees and asked them to reconsider their opposition to the surgical mask, the women said. All three said they remain firm in their resistance, even if it means they will be fired.
“If nobody ever stood up for something, this country wouldn’t be where it is today,” said Watson, 36, a mother of four from Willingboro. “Every time you stand up for what you believe in, it’s a sacrifice, and in this case it’s our jobs.
“There are things more important than my job,” she added. “My body is of paramount importance.”
The three women are employed as accountants or billing specialists in the headquarters, where 32 people work.
Colleen Frankenfield, Lutheran Social Ministries’ president, said earlier this week that about half of those in the office frequently visit the agency’s nursing homes and other facilities, raising the possibility of cross-contamination.
Frankenfield did not immediately return a call for comment Friday.
Mercurius, 45, of Maple Shade, said the human resources director did not explicitly say she would be fired at the end of the suspension, which runs from Monday to Friday next week. But Mercurius said she expects that will be the outcome unless Lutheran Social Ministries changes course.
“By telling us we have to wear the mask, that’s not really giving us a reasonable alternative,” she said. “I’m not going to change my mind.”
Duncan, 30, of Howell, said the company is to inform the women of the “next step” when they return to work Nov. 16.
The women are among a growing number of employees facing termination across the nation for refusing to take the vaccine, which has been linked in very rare circumstances to serious illness.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and many other health agencies, including New Jersey’s Department of Health, strongly recommend flu shots for all employees in health care settings, saying high compliance among workers has been proven to reduce hospitalizations and prevent deaths.
Yet some remain deeply suspicious of the vaccine and say they should not be forced to take it as a condition of employment. The rising mandates have led to lawsuits in several states.
Duncan, Watson and Mercurius say they are healthy women and are exceedingly careful about what they put into their bodies. They also argue the vaccine is not always effective against various flu strains.
“People who get the vaccine can still get sick,” Duncan said. “So if they’re so concerned about the flu, then everyone should wear the mask in the office.”