Financial pain begins for Duke, UNC Health workers who missed COVID vaccine deadline

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Several hundred employees of the UNC Health system have lost at least part of their annual bonus because they missed Tuesday’s deadline to either get vaccinated against COVID-19 or get an approved exemption.

Meanwhile at Duke Health, “fewer than 200” workers have been put on unpaid leave and have until Tuesday to comply with the hospital system’s vaccination policy.

Combined, the two health systems required more than 52,000 employees to get vaccinated against COVID-19 or get an approved exemption for either medical or religious reasons. Both say that the vast majority of their workers made Tuesday’s deadline.

The UNC employees who did not are now on probation and have until Nov. 2 to comply. They are now eligible for only 75% of an annual performance bonus due in late October; those who don’t get vaccinated or a waiver by Nov. 2 will lose the full bonus as well as their jobs.

The size of the bonus varies by worker and department but can amount to hundreds or thousands of dollars, said UNC spokesman Alan Wolf.

“It really is an incentive payment, so it’s tied to various metrics for the organization, such as revenue and patient satisfaction scores,” Wolf said. “It is a way to tie the organization’s success to a bonus.”

UNC is still working to confirm the vaccination status of about 900 employees, Wolf said. Some of them are on personal or medical leave or are new hires, both of which have more time to comply with the vaccine policy.

But most of them are simply unaccounted for and are now on probation, Wolf said. Some of that group may be vaccinated but have just not provided proof to UNC Health, but many others must still get their shots or get an approved exemption.

The vaccine mandate applied to 10 of the 12 hospitals in the UNC Health system, including Rex in Raleigh, UNC Medical Center in Chapel Hill and several smaller rural hospitals. Vaccination rates were highest at UNC’s urban hospitals and lowest in rural areas, said Dr. Matt Ewend, chief clinical officer at UNC Health.

“Our hospitals really reflect the communities that they live in,” Ewend said. “The most vaccinated county in the state is Orange County, and as you would imagine the vaccination rate at the UNC Medical Center in Chapel Hill is on our high end.”

In addition to the workers on probation, about 70 employees have resigned from UNC Health over the vaccine mandate since it was announced in late July. Another 35 have declined job offers because of it, Wolf said.

“When you’re looking across an organization that’s 30,000 employees, that’s not an outrageous number,” he said.

Duke: ‘Proud of where we are’

About 98% of Duke Health’s 23,000 employees have complied with the mandate policy, including more than 99% of nurses, said Katie Galbraith, president of Duke Regional Hospital, one of three Duke hospitals in the Triangle. Galbraith said another 1% are either new employees or on leave and will have six weeks from when they start work to either get vaccinated or a waiver.

That leaves fewer than 1% who went on unpaid leave Tuesday. They have seven days to either get their first shot of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine or the single shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

Duke will continue to encourage those employees to get vaccinated, Galbraith said.

“All along we’ve not wanted to lose anyone,” she said. “It really is about safety, and I think our team members have really stepped up and reinforced their commitment to our values.

“At this point we are very proud of where we are, and hope to be able to bring those last few team members along,” she said.

UNC, Duke and several other hospitals across North Carolina announced mandatory vaccination policies on July 22. That same day the trade group that represents hospitals in the state came out in favor of required vaccination for all health care workers, saying the vaccines had proven to be “extraordinarily safe and effective, and our best tool to prevent the spread of the disease.”

The Triangle’s third big hospital system, WakeMed, also will require its employees to get vaccinated for COVID-19, but its deadline is Nov. 12.

UNC and Duke estimated that 70% or more of their employees were already vaccinated when they announced the mandates. Until then, hospitals didn’t track who had been vaccinated and had to ask workers to provide proof.

About 5% of UNC Health workers and 6% at Duke Health requested exemptions, the most common being for religious reasons. Both health systems grant religious wavers for the annual flu shot and used a similar process to review COVID-19 applications.

A religious exemption must be rooted in a longstanding, deeply held religious belief, and be based in fact about COVID-19 and the vaccines. A majority of the requests were granted.