A labor union in the Duluth area wants a federal judge to prevent Essentia Health from firing employees who refuse to get a flu shot.

A lawsuit filed last week by the United Steelworkers on behalf of its members at 11 Essentia locations seeks a temporary injunction to allow union and management to resolve the dispute under the terms of the collective bargaining agreement.

Essentia announced in early September that it is now requiring all employees to get a flu shot. With “very limited medical and religious exemptions,” employees who refuse to meet the Nov. 10 deadline for complying will be fired on Nov. 20, according to the suit.

Flu vaccinations for employees of health care providers are required in 18 states, according to the latest federal data. Minnesota has no such requirement, even for employees who come in direct contact with patients.

The lawsuit said union members “have medical conditions or religious beliefs that make it impossible for them to receive the vaccine, yet Essentia has denied their exemption requests.”

The union goes on to allege that Essentia has been meeting with employees in groups and “publicly shaming those who have not received the vaccine.”

Lawyers for both sides met Monday in an effort to find a solution, but “the parties were not able to reach an amicable resolution,” union attorney Justin D. Cummins told the court the following day.

Essentia, with roughly 15,000 staff members in Minnesota, Wisconsin, North Dakota and Idaho, said the newly updated policy also covers volunteers, medical students and vendors in their facilities.

Last flu season, 82 percent of Essentia employees received the vaccine. In pursuing something closer to 90 percent, “we learned from studying other successful institutions that ... we needed to move to requiring the vaccination,” said Essentia’s Dr. Rajesh Prabhu, an infectious disease specialist.

“On average, more than 200,000 people are hospitalized due to the flu each year” in the United States, said Prabhu, pointing out that those most susceptible are the elderly, young children and people with certain medical conditions. “Getting a flu shot supports Essentia’s mission of making a healthy difference in people’s lives and builds trust with our patients and communities that we serve.”

State has flu shot campaign

The state Health Department spearheads an annual campaign that awards ribbons to hospitals and nursing homes that reach certain vaccination thresholds.

Of the 149 providers that joined the campaign in the previous flu season, 139 got at least 70 percent of their staff vaccinated, with 67 of them grabbing a blue ribbon for at least 90 percent compliance.

“Participating in FluSafe shows a commitment to patient safety,” said Denise Dunn, a vaccine-preventable diseases program manager at the Health Department, when the agency released the campaign’s results. “These facilities are going the extra mile to promote and offer flu vaccinations to their staff.”

Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis requires all employees to participate in the vaccination program, which includes either getting a flu shot or declaring in writing the option to decline, said hospital spokeswoman Christine Hill. HCMC had a compliance rate topping 90 percent in the previous flu season.

Robbinsdale-based North Memorial Medical Center doesn’t require but encourages its employees to get a flu shot, a hospital spokesman said. The vaccination rate for North Memorial staff was in the 70 to 79 percent range in 2016-17.

Rick Fuentes, spokesman for the Twin Cities-based Minnesota Nurses Association, said his organization’s “long-standing position is that voluntary programs work much better. We’ve always worked with employers in their effort to promote participation.”

One nurse’s reasoning

Christina Bergman, a registered nurse with Essentia for 11 years, explained in a court filing supporting the suit that “I have never tolerated vaccines well. ... The last time I had a flu shot, it left my arm extremely sore for a week.”

Bergman went on to warn that “if I am required to get a flu shot in order to keep my job, and I suffer adverse consequences from the vaccine, no arbitrator’s award will be able to undo the damage.”

Bergman also contended that the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has determined that flu shots are “of limited effectiveness.”

The CDC says that its most recent studies found that the vaccination reduces the risk of getting the flu by anywhere from 40 to 60 percent for the overall population when the medication is properly matched with a particular virus.

A representative of the United Steelworkers, which represents 50,000 health care workers in the U.S. Canada and the Caribbean, criticized Essentia management for its unwillingness to make concessions, such as offering a vaccine mist for employees who are afraid of needles. Health professionals, however, agree that the mist is not an effective alternative.

Stacy Spexet, the president of one of the union’s locals, wrote that Essentia has refused to allow employees who are not vaccinated to wear facemasks instead of being inoculated.

Rhode Island is one state that allows that option.

“I have received numerous calls and e-mails from members who are very upset about Essentia’s new policy,” Spexet wrote.

“They wonder what Essentia will be able to require next” as well as having doubts about the effectiveness and safety of the vaccine, she continued. “Some would rather lose their jobs than get a flu shot.”