SEATTLE - The Washington State Nurses Association has filed a federal lawsuit against MultiCare Heath System.
The suit seeks an injunction against MultiCare and its new policy of mandating that hospital staffers get a flu shot or wear a surgical mask as a condition of employment.
MultiCare, which runs Tacoma General and several other hospitals, is asking all nurses to get vaccinated for both the seasonal and swine flu.
The WSNA says they can be fired for refusing to do one of the other, and some nurses feel an employer should not force them into a personal health care decision.
"MultiCare's unilateral implementation of this policy blatantly ignores their legal obligation to bargain with the union," said Barbara Frye, BSN, RN, Assistant Executive Director of Labor Relations for WSNA.
The WSNA represents more than 16,000 registered nurses in the state. They believes that wearing a mask will serve as a sort of scarlet letter.
Nurses who do get the shot will wear the special color coded badges to let others know they have been vaccinated.
"We're nurses. We believe we should get flu shots. We have been involved in promoting that. We don't believe that people should be forced to," said Barbara Frye, WSNA spokesperson.
Prior to the seeing the lawsuit, MultiCare issued this statement: "As always, our first priority is patient safety. We developed our flu policy to protect our patients, visitors and staff during this heightened flu season. To clarify, our policy encourages all employees who have direct patient contact (those who are within three feet of a patient for at least five minutes) to either: receive a flu shot, use flu mist, or wear a protective face mask."
MultiCare says the policy was developed by a team of physicians, nurses and infection control experts, based on scientific evidence and best practices.
This is the latest in a growing controversy over whether employers can and should ask or even require workers to get immunized.
Virginia Mason Medical Center announced today it will require all staff, including physicians and nurses, to receive both the H1N1 vaccine and the seasonal flu vaccine this fall. Virginia Mason was the first hospital in the country to require staff immunizations for seasonal influenza.
The State of New York, hit hard by swine earlier this year, is now requiring all health workers to be immunized. The New York City school district has ordered one million doses of vaccine.
Health experts say whether it's required or not, health care workers should be among the first to be vaccinated.
"So speaking to my colleagues I want to spread one important message: I'm sorry but it's not about you. It is about the patients that you are privileged to care for and it's about protecting them," said Dr. Gregory Poland, of the Mayo Clinic.