Hundreds of St. Cloud VA nurses’ jobs on the line over federal vaccine mandate

The perpetually troubled Veterans Administration usually seems to have enough battles on its hands without looking for more. But the federal agency continues to fight to compel medical staff at hospitals across the country to comply with the government’s COVID-19 vaccination mandate or face termination. Depending on how the skirmish turns out, veterans who rely on the VA for medical help could become collateral damage in the process.

That includes Minnesota vets who receive treatment at the St. Cloud VA Medical Center. The central Minnesota facility reportedly has one of the highest unvaccinated rates of nurses in the system with nearly 20 percent declining to comply, according to the St. Cloud Times.

According to information provided by the St. Cloud VA following a Freedom of Information Act request filed by the St. Cloud Times, 342 employees — approximately 18.3% of workers at the St. Cloud VA hospital — were not vaccinated against COVID-19 as of May 13.

That number includes employees with vaccine exemptions approved by the VA, although it’s not known how many of the 342 unvaccinated workers won exemptions because it is “too early in the process to provide a final number,” the St. Cloud VA said in its FOIA response. 

The key concern is that the feds’ mandate and potential disciplinary action against those who do not comply could exacerbate an already critical nursing shortage. Lack of staff has already forced the St. Cloud VA to consolidate a nursing home facility for the foreseeable future.

[AFGE Local 390 Union President Andrea] Matthews said the St. Cloud VA is likely disproportionately affected because of its higher rate of unvaccinated employees compared to other VAs.

“It’s not about pro- or anti-vaccine. … That is not what’s for debate here,” Matthews said. “What’s for debate is how unfairly our non-vaccinated employees are being treated and how their jobs are being threatened, and ultimately how, without that staff — those who have stuck through it, those who are still here, who have dealt with ridiculous amounts of overtime being mandated, being floated to different areas, who have had to deal with just unfathomable amounts of loss in their unit for the (veterans) that they’ve taken care of … and are still here — I think it’s really pretty unfair for VA Central Office to be approaching this as they are and not considering the impact that is going to have on our veteran population.”

A grievance has been filed nationally against the VA over the agency’s alleged failure to negotiate with the union regarding COVID-related issues. Some nurses who remain unvaccinated may be reassigned to other duties at the St. Cloud facility. But the VA has begun to take action against staff who fail to comply.

Carisa Garrett worked as a nurse at the St. Cloud VA Medical Center for 12 years before resigning in April after she heard some employees had begun getting exemption denial notices. The notices said the exemption would cause the facility “undue hardship” to stay on in their current roles if unvaccinated, she said.

Unvaccinated staff did everything asked of them, Garrett said: they wore masks and got tested once or twice weekly. The mandate requiring unvaccinated staff to wear N95 masks was met with dismay, Garrett said. 

“It made it feel like (nurses) were broadcasting their vaccination status when they were working,” Garrett said.

So far no nurses at the medical center have been been notified of disciplinary action for not being vaccinated. But it appears to be only a matter of time before the process begins to play out.