By BETHANY BLANKLEY
THE CENTER SQUARE CONTRIBUTOR
(The Center Square) – The first settlement in the U.S. has been reached in a class action lawsuit filed by health care workers over a university system’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate.
Chicago-based NorthShore University HealthSystem has agreed to pay more than 500 current and former health-care workers a total of $10,337,500 as part of the terms of the settlement. It’s also changing its policy to accommodate religious exemption requests and rehiring former employees who were fired or forced to resign whose exemption requests were denied.
Represented by the nonprofit religious freedom organization Liberty Counsel, NorthShore employees sued, alleging they were discriminated against because they were denied religious exemptions from the company’s vaccine mandate. The settlement was filed Friday in the federal Northern District Court of Illinois.
The is the “first-of-its-kind class action settlement against a private employer who unlawfully denied hundreds of religious exemption requests to COVID-19 shots,” Liberty Counsel said. Its founder and chairman, Mat Staver, said it “should be a wake-up call to every employer that did not accommodate or exempt employees who opposed the COVID shots for religious reasons. Let this case be a warning to employers that violated Title VII.”
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin.
The settlement nearly concludes a conflict that began after NorthShore rejected employees’ religious accommodation requests to its “Mandatory COVID-19 Vaccination Policy.” Last October, Liberty Counsel sent a demand letter on behalf of the impacted employees but NorthShore didn’t change its policy. As a result, Liberty Counsel filed a class action lawsuit.
“If NorthShore had agreed then to follow the law and grant religious exemptions, the matter would have been quickly resolved and it would have cost it nothing,” Liberty Counsel said.
While the parties have agreed to the settlement, it still has to be approved by the court. Employees of NorthShore who were denied religious exemptions will receive notice of the settlement and be given an opportunity to comment, object, request to opt out, or submit a claim form for payment within deadlines yet to be established by the court.
The settlement requires NorthShore to change its “no religious accommodations” policy, which it has agreed to do, and provide religious accommodations in every position throughout its company.
Employees who were terminated because their religious exemption requests were denied are now eligible to be rehired, according to the terms of the settlement. They can apply for positions at their previously held seniority level within 90 days of the court approving the final settlement.
NorthShore’s director of PR, Colette Urban, told The Center Square, “We continue to support system-wide, evidence-based vaccination requirements for everyone who works at NorthShore – Edward-Elmhurst Health and thank our team members for helping to keep our communities safe.
“The settlement reflects implementation of a new system-wide vaccine policy which will include accommodation for team members with approved exemptions, including former employees who are rehired.”
The amount individuals will receive in payments will depend on how many valid and timely claim forms are submitted. If all, or nearly all, affected employees file valid and timely claims, it’s estimated that those who were fired or forced to resign after their religious exemption requests were denied will receive approximately $25,000 each. Those who were vaccinated under duress in order to keep their jobs and against their religious beliefs will receive about $3,000 each.
The 13 employees who were the lead plaintiffs will receive an additional payment of roughly $20,000 each. Liberty Counsel will receive 20% of the settlement amount of $2,061,500 to cover attorney fees and costs.
Liberty Counsel’s VP of Legal Affairs and Chief Litigation Counsel Horatio G. Mihet said, “The drastic policy change and substantial monetary relief required by the settlement will bring a strong measure of justice to NorthShore’s employees who were callously forced to choose between their conscience and their jobs. This settlement should also serve as a strong warning to employers across the nation that they cannot refuse to accommodate those with sincere religious objections to forced vaccination mandates.”
Mr. Staver added that it was “especially significant and gratifying that this first classwide COVID settlement protects healthcare workers. Health care workers are heroes who daily give their lives to protect and treat their patients. They are needed now more than ever.”