“I just love it. I love my job. I love what I do, and this has been really hard. Sorry.”
The pediatric nurse, who had been working at Children’s Wisconsin for 12 years, choked back tears as she stressed her passion for treating sick children to the chaplain and human resources representative tasked with questioning whether her religious beliefs were sincere enough to earn her an exemption from the Milwaukee hospital’s vaccine mandate, which took effect in November.
This nurse, whose religious exemption appeal interview was shared with The Federalist on the condition of anonymity, was finally granted an exemption after first being denied, then appealing, then being grilled by the two hospital representatives about her religious convictions. Some of her colleagues weren’t so fortunate.
Of the five appeal interview recordings reviewed by The Federalist, only two of the employees were granted religious exemptions despite the same general questions being asked to each of the Children’s workers and similar themes in each of their answers. The other three were denied.
Staff was notified in July about the vaccine mandate, which required them to get the Covid-19 shot by mid-November. Employees had until Sept. 1 to request a religious exemption, according to a vaccine overview document that Children’s WI President and CEO Peggy Troy emailed to all hospital employees, and they were notified of the decisions later.
Some of the people who were denied began seeking new jobs, Alyssa Pollow, a nurse practitioner and former Children’s Wisconsin provider, told The Federalist. Others wanted to stay, however, and appealed, especially if they had any seniority.
To appeal a denial, employees had to email Employee Health and Wellness and Human Resources, which would set up Zoom interviews to grill applicants about their religious beliefs and point out apparent contradictions.
These interviews were conducted by chaplain Ian Butts and one person from HR, such as Sharyl Niebler or Staci Benz, but Butts conducted most of the interrogation. The questions included the specifics of the employees’ personal religious convictions and their vaccination record, with Butts pressing on what he considered to be contradictions.
Two particularly leading questions regarded the specifics of how the employees would keep their patients safe without being vaccinated, implying a moral implication of refusing a vaccine, as well as how they could square working for a hospital that mandated something so contrary to their personal convictions as a condition of employment.
“In my opinion, he’s so over the line with how he is asking these questions,” Pollow told The Federalist. “And for him to be their religious arbiter of whose religious beliefs are more virtuous than someone else is such a violation of privacy.”
“It just feels so invasive,” she added, even calling it an “assault on religion.”
Butts and the HR representative would then relay the information they collected to an overarching committee called the COVID Religious Waiver Committee, the members of which were kept hidden, shielding the exemption arbiters of any accountability.
The committee also offered no transparency regarding the reasons employees were denied exemptions. “Because Children’s must preserve the integrity of its waiver request review process, the specific reasons for denials are not shared,” the Employee Health and Wellness Covid-19 team wrote in response to an employee’s query about that person’s religious waiver denial.
Children’s Wisconsin did not answer The Federalist’s questions about who was on the waiver committee. It also would not say how many people applied for religious exemptions, how many of those were approved, and how the current number of vacancies compares to pre-pandemic levels.
“All staff members at Children’s Wisconsin currently comply with our vaccine requirements,” Children’s spokesman Andy Brodzeller replied to The Federalist’s inquiry. “More than 98 percent of our team members met our Nov. 15 deadline to be vaccinated or have an exemption approved. … We were sad to see the less than 100 people leave our organization when the requirement went into effect, but respect their decision to do so.”
The response from Children’s leaves many questions unanswered, however, such as how many people weren’t included in the denominator of that 98 percent because they resigned upon learning about the mandate, long before the Nov. 15 deadline, without even trying to acquire an exemption. And the language about the “100 people leav[ing]” implies a voluntary decision, so how many more were terminated? It’s eerily reminiscent of the public relations wordsmithing conducted by Gundersen Health Systems, another Wisconsin hospital system, to conceal its vaccine mandate staffing crisis.
Judging by the disparity in outcomes for the five aforementioned employees who appealed despite the similarities in their responses, it appears Children’s doesn’t have a strong or consistent rationale for its waiver decisions.
Pollow said that when one manager was given a list of about a dozen staff she was going to lose, she demanded a meeting with decision-makers, where she “raised hell” about the need for all those staff members to remain on her team. The next week, Pollow said, the majority of those staff had their appeals approved, leading her to believe that the COVID Religious Waiver Committee was making its decisions in an effort to appease the managers in certain departments who were willing to stick out their necks for their employees. Or perhaps more likely, they were trying to “spread out their losses across the departments.”
That’s because we’ve seen the catastrophic effects of these vaccine mandates and other poor management and working conditions, which have left other hospitals severely understaffed.
Gundersen Health Systems in La Crosse, Wisconsin, has severely hemorrhaged staff as a result of the vaccine mandate, contrary to its deceptive self-reporting on the matter. Those terminations paired with workers quitting over low wages have led to underserved patients.
“Within the hospital, nursing shortages have led to unsafe staffing situations where nurses and CNAs are being forced to take more patients than what is safe due to there not being enough nursing staff present. Patients are being forgotten on bed pans or are falling because there is simply not enough staff to safely take care of them,” one former Gundersen nurse wrote in a community impact statement. Although she had been granted a religious exemption from that hospital, she was so disgusted by the letter’s language that she resigned anyway.
As a result of low-wage staff jumping ship, she said nurses had to use the bare minimum of linens, even going so far as to fashion makeshift pillowcases out of hospital gowns. One weekend in October, Gundersen had to shut down a dozen beds due to nursing shortages, she said, adding that it has also canceled heart valve replacement surgeries because it didn’t have enough post-op staff.
Like Gundersen, Children’s Wisconsin appears to be scrambling to plug staffing holes. Even back in September, hospital wings blasted out desperate pleas for help, captured in the screenshots below. After denying religious exemptions and therefore losing more staff, Children’s has had to get especially creative.
Senior leadership started “Helping Hands” where employees could sign up for 2-4 hour shifts to do the necessary tasks left undone by short-staffing, such as restocking linens, folding laundry, mopping floors, or working in the cafeteria. This email from the end of January says “only 92 out of 234 shifts are currently filled.”
Like other Wisconsin hospitals, Children’s is also trying to recruit travel nurses to fill vacancies, despite many travel nurses being able to evade vaccination requirements by being employed not directly by hospitals but by travel agencies. (Below is one example of a Gundersen nurse who said she was fired in November for not being vaccinated and has now accepted a 13-week travel RN contract with the same hospital despite still being unvaccinated.)
Not to mention, travel nurses are not specialized to particular institutions, especially pediatrics, meaning that when hospitals outsource this care, it can cause patients to suffer needlessly.
“I think they are so desperate and they know they have created a staffing shortage crisis,” Pollow said.
Pollow no longer works at Children’s, but it isn’t because she was denied an exemption or refused to get vaccinated. In fact, she was vaccinated all the way back in January 2021. In December, after the mandate set in, however, she quit.
Her resignation is worth noting because it suggests that employees in her situation likely haven’t been included in Children’s self-reported “less than 100 people leav[ing] when the requirement went into effect.” Their departures are scattered and don’t coincide with the mandate going into effect.
“For vaxxed people, we are just fed up with the BS,” she said. “This has really opened our eyes to the toxic environment that our senior leadership officials have created and that they are blindly mandating things and not considering the true quality of care that are being impacted.”
For this reason, Children’s probably isn’t done losing staff. Pollow indicated more people are still employed but have one foot out the door. Some of them were lucky enough to get their religious waivers approved but are struggling over how long they will stay because the hospital is mandating weekly testing for the unvaccinated only — a serious double standard since the vaccinated can still get and spread Covid.
“We are definitely still seeing the effects of this,” Pollow said. “And we will continue to see it for a very long time.”