A Florida agency that regulates hospitals is warning providers against implementing COVID-19 vaccine mandates for employees, citing a state law that forbids such rules and levies hefty fines on offenders.
The state's Agency for Health Care Administration, which oversees hospitals and other healthcare facilities, sent a notice to providers Jan. 4 reminding them of a state law that prohibits private employers from imposing COVID-19 vaccine mandates. This puts providers in a tricky spot, as complying with Florida law would mean being out of compliance with two Biden administration vaccine mandates, both of which are in the midst of legal challenges.
"The Biden administration's most recent action tramples the rights of healthcare providers and creates a scheme of unequal enforcement, as well as uncertainty, among states while litigation challenging CMS's rule is pending in the United States Supreme Court," AHCA Secretary Simone Marstiller said in a statement. "Thanks to the leadership of Governor DeSantis, Florida law prohibits blanket vaccine mandates and protects jobs, ensuring that our most vulnerable are able to receive the healthcare services they need."
Healthcare workers fired because of such mandates can file complaints with the Florida Attorney General's office, which can issue fines of up to $50,000 per violation for companies with more than 100 employees. Fines can reach $10,000 per violation for employers with fewer than 100 employees.
Most health systems in Florida don't have strict COVID-19 vaccine mandates. Even Rochester, Minnesota-based Mayo Clinic, which is terminating about 1% of its 73,000 employees for failing to comply with its mandate, said it's holding off on firing unvaccinated employees at its Florida campus.
"Florida staff who are not in compliance with our vaccination program remain employed pending the outcome of litigation related to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services requirements," Mayo spokesperson Kevin Punsky said.
Punsky declined to say how many of Mayo's 7,400 Florida employees remain unvaccinated.
Memorial Healthcare System in Broward County is another system that has not implemented a mandate, although Margie Vargas, the system's chief human resources officer, said more than 90% of employees are vaccinated. Once there's a final ruling on the federal mandates, Vargas said Memorial will consult with its legal counsel on whether to implement a mandate.
"We're just in a holding pattern," she said. "We have not terminated any employees."
In the meantime, more than 400 Memorial employees—or 3% of the health system's workforce—is out with COVID-19 this week, Vargas said. That's compared to up to 70 workers at once during earlier points in the pandemic.
"Over the course of the last several weeks, that has exponentially grown," she said.
Orlando Health also does not have a mandate, spokesperson Geo Morales said. The system continues to "strongly encourage" vaccinations for all employees, he said.
BayCare Health System in Clearwater is holding off on a vaccine mandate until there's more clarity at the federal level, spokesperson Lisa Razler said. The system continues to monitor legal developments concerning the mandates.
Miami's Jackson Health System also doesn't have a mandate, but it has begun deducting $50 biweekly from the paychecks of employees who are not fully vaccinated and don't have medical or religious exemptions, spokesperson Lidia Amoretti said. Currently, 85% of the health system's more than 13,000 employees are vaccinated.
Holy Cross Health in Fort Lauderdale is the rare example of a system that does have a vaccine mandate. It's part of Livonia, Michigan-based Trinity Health, which last summer became one of the first large health systems to announce a COVID-19 vaccination mandate across its 91 hospitals and 117,000 employees. Spokesperson Christine Walker said Holy Cross is committed to the safety of its colleagues, patients and communities.
"Because of this, we implemented a COVID-19 vaccine requirement prior to any CMS regulations or Florida state laws being in place on the matter," she said.
Florida's Governor, Ron DeSantis, signed into law in November the state's prohibition on private employer COVID-19 vaccine mandates, declaring, "Nobody should lose their job due to heavy-handed COVID mandates." That same day, Florida's Attorney General, Ashley Moody, announced the state was challenging the Biden administration's vaccine mandate for healthcare workers.
The Supreme Court is expected to add clarity Friday when it hears oral arguments around whether CMS' mandate for healthcare workers and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's mandate for most private employers can take effect while they undergo appeals.