JANESVILLE (WKOW) -- A Rock County-operated nursing home is requiring workers to receive the COVID-19 vaccine or face lay off.
"We were blindsided by the whole thing," Health Services Committee Chair Rock County Supervisor Tom Brien says of the policy at Rock Haven Nursing Home in Janesville.
The Janesville Gazette reports County Administrator Josh Smith was involved in implementing the policy, telling the newspaper it was done to boost the safety of the facility's vulnerable residents. Smith Friday failed to respond to a call and email from 27 News. Assistant County Administrator Randy Terronez told 27 News he was unable to comment. County Corporation Counsel Richard Greenlee also failed to comment on the policy's implementation, but did release emails to 27 News from concerned workers.
Brien says he believes the policy requiring COVID-19 vaccination is the first of its kind among long term care facilities in the state.
"If the residents have a right to choose, we should have that right as well," wrote worker Antoinette Cavett in an email to the county.
"I am almost 65 years old," writes worker Betty Halverson. "I would like to be able to make the choice of getting a vaccine that is so new. My only option is to take a lay off and lose my insurance."
"We love what we do. We love our residents," said a worker who spoke to 27 News on the condition of anonymity, as she fears she would lose her job if she was identified.
The worker said she was informed of the requirement for on-site employment last month. "I cried inside," she says. She says she's worried about potential side effects from the vaccine.
"I took the first...shot, less than 12 hours later, had a severe reaction, and spiked a temperature...severe headache and muscle pain," wrote another worker. Officials with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) say adverse reactions to the vaccine are limited.
Emails indicate four employees already have been laid off after refusing to receive the vaccine. "The mandating of the vaccine is leading to a staffing crisis at Rock Haven," worker Heather Kempf wrote.
Workers say they're already tested for COVID-19 twice weekly, screened with temperature checks at each shift, wear personal protective equipment (PPE) and comply with other safety protocols.
" I think their concerns are legitimate," Brien says.
"While I have no doubt the decision was made with the best intentions for our residents' health, it absolutely oversteps the boundaries of what an employer should expect or in this case, demand of their employees," writes worker Ronald Machaj.
Attorney and UW-Milwaukee Assistant Professor Barbara Zabawa of the College of Health Sciences says recent federal guidance on a vaccine mandate supports an employer's ability to implement it.
"They basically said, 'Yes, you can mandate it as long as you follow the guidelines of the ADA (Americans Disabilities Act),' Zabawa says of the direction from the Equal Opportunities Commission. Zabawa says a disability could exempt a worker from such a vaccine requirement.
Zabawa says another factor in any potential legal challenge to mandating the COVID-19 vaccine is the vaccine's emergency use authorization.
"That wrinkle in this whole process needs to be considered because the legal case...with mandates with vaccine in the past both at the U.S. Supreme Court case and lower courts all looked at vaccines that there's been more evidence of effectiveness," Zabawa says.
County Board Chair Richard Bostwick says the board has no authority over policy implementation at the county-operated skilled nursing facility. But Bostwick and Brien say members will discuss the policy at a board meeting later this month, and may develop an advisory position.