A group of Houston Methodist employees gathered at the hospital chain’s Baytown location Monday night to protest the hospital’s requirement that all rank-and-file employees take a COVID-19 vaccine by June 7 to keep their jobs.
The unvaccinated employees were joined by anti-vaccine well-wishers from the community, who carried signs railing against Houston Methodist’s vaccine mandate and against COVID-19 vaccines in general.
A “walkout” of non-compliant Houston Methodist employees organized by Baytown nurse Jennifer Bridges was set to take place at 7:45 p.m. Monday, about an hour after her final shift.
But Bridges, who’s become the leader of the small but vocal contingent of Houston Methodist workers who’ve refused to follow the hospital's vaccine mandate, told the Houston Press hospital security scuttled those plans earlier that day.
“They sent emails, and then I got a call from their head of security stating that we weren’t allowed to be on the property doing this,” Bridges said. That led to a group of about 70 protesters congregating on the medians in the middle of Baker Road alongside the Baytown hospital.
“They can’t control us out here,” Bridges said. “I’m tired of being controlled and I’m tired of people trying to tell me what to do.”
Bridges and her anti-vaccine coworkers were wearing matching t-shirts: On the front, they read “HOUSTON METHODIST: VACCINATE OR TERMINATE. FIGHTING FOR OUR RIGHTS.” On the back, “The Jab or My Job.”
Bridges is one of 117 Houston Methodist employees who sued the hospital chain on May 28, claiming that the mandatory vaccine requirement was illegal based on the World War II-era Nuremberg Code, the set of international medical ethics guidelines created to prevent heinous medical experiments like those perpetrated by the Nazis. Despite the lawsuit’s claims, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issued updated guidance last month which reiterated that it's legal for companies in the United States to require that their workers get vaccinated against the coronavirus.
Houston Methodist president and CEO Dr. Marc Boom announced the hospital’s mandatory vaccine policy back in March. Manager-level employees were required to get vaccinated by mid-April, while the majority of the hospital’s workers had until June 7 to take at least one dose of any of the three available COVID-19 vaccines the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has authorized for emergency use after extensive trials.
Pierre Charland, a Houston Methodist nurse who works in the Medical Center, drove out to Baytown to join his coworkers who oppose the vaccine requirement. Charland, who also signed onto the lawsuit against Houston Methodist, said he was frustrated that the hospital required the vaccines before they had been fully-approved by the FDA.
“I knew that if there was a hospital that would do it, it would be Methodist early on,” Charland said. “They like to give vaccines. I’ve worked other places, and they don’t worry so much about employee health.”
Charland said that employees were told that if they hadn’t taken at least one vaccine shot by midnight Monday, they would be put on two-week unpaid suspensions, at the end of which they’d be fired.
“I mean, I wouldn’t risk losing my job for not getting the flu shot. But this one is different,” Charland claimed.
When the Press reached out to Houston Methodist Monday ahead of the protest, hospital spokeswoman Gale Smith provided the following statement:
Today is the deadline for Houston Methodist employees to comply with the mandatory COVID-19 vaccine policy. We are proud to report that almost 100 percent of our 26,000 employees have complied, making the right decision to fulfill their sacred obligation to protect our patients.
Unfortunately, a few employees have not met the vaccine requirements and are inviting other employees to join them as they end their shifts today. We fully support the right of our employees to peacefully gather on their own time, but it is unacceptable to even suggest they abandon their patients to participate in this activity.
We have faith that our employees will continue putting our patients first. It is unfortunate that today’s milestone of Houston Methodist becoming the safest hospital system in the country is being overshadowed by a few disgruntled employees.
Later Monday evening, Smith said that "no Houston Methodist employees walked off the job this evening."
"All employees seen leaving this evening were just leaving after their normal shift," she said.
Bridges said she was surprised at how emotional she was at the end of her final shift Monday. “I started crying as I was leaving,” she said. “And I took my mask off, got my shirt on, and just walked out and said ‘I’m done.’”
Across the street, on Houston Methodist property, Maria Mosqueda and Udeen Greene watched the group of protesters Monday evening, still in their scrubs and both wearing surgical masks.
Mosqueda and Greene, both certified nurse assistants at the Baytown hospital, jumped on the opportunity to get vaccinated as soon as shots were first made available to Houston Methodist employees this past winter. They said they don’t understand why these nurses they’ve worked with don’t trust the science that shows the vaccines are safe and effective.
“They have the right to get vaccinated or not, but Methodist, they have the right to take care of, first, the patients,” Mosqueda said.
“What we’ve been through, with all these people who are suffering with COVID, I think these nurses should understand better,” Greene said.
“I’m very grateful that the hospital took care of us right away,” Mosqueda said. “I’m very blessed to be part of Methodist.”