Franklin Community Health Network reports 48 “resignations” or “separations” (6.6% of its workforce) due to Gov. Janet Mills’ vaccine mandate for all healthcare workers in Maine. Donna Perry/Sun Journal file photo

FCHN reports 48 employees (or about 6.6% of its workforce) resigned or “separated” from the company due to MaineHealth and Gov. Janet Mills’ vaccine mandate for healthcare workers. Of the 48 resignations and separations, 34 were clinical roles.

REGION — Franklin Community Health Network (FCHN) lost 48 employees, or about 6.6% of its workforce, across the entire health network at the beginning of November due to Maine’s vaccine mandate for healthcare workers.

Of the 48 employees, 13 were full time and 34 were clinical roles, according to Director of Communications and Public Affairs Ryan M. Mastrangelo. The 48 employees are among roughly 725 employees in FCHN. Twenty-one of those roles have been filled (leaving 27 open positions related to the mandate) as of Friday, Nov. 12, Mastrangelo said.

The COVID-19 vaccine mandate for healthcare workers was first issued in early August by MaineHealth, “New England’s largest health system and Maine’s largest private employer,” which FCHN is a part of.

Around two weeks later, Gov. Janet Mills issued a statewide COVID-vaccine mandate for healthcare workers.

According to Sun Journal’s Emily Bader, “workers at all state-licensed hospitals, residential care facilities, home health agencies, dental practices and emergency medical service organizations” were required to get the vaccine or face job loss.

The Mills administration set an Oct. 1 deadline for employees to be fully vaccinated (which would require getting the second or single-dose vaccine by Sept. 17). The administration then pushed the deadline for healthcare networks and employers to enforce that mandate to Nov. 1.

Since the mandate was announced, Press Herald’s Matt Byrne reports that “healthcare workers in Maine filed a class-action lawsuit against the state, the governor and major Maine health networks (Aug. 25), arguing that the state’s requirement that health care workers be vaccinated against COVID-19 tramples on their religious freedoms.”

However, the U.S. Supreme Court “rejected (that) emergency appeal” two times, most recently on Oct. 26, Press Herald’s Megan Gray reports.

In the weeks leading up to the mandate’s November enforcement, Mastrangelo said most of the FCHN employees that opted not to be vaccinated “are considered resignations because employees decided themselves to leave because of the policy.”

“Others are regarded as separations of employment because they chose to work up until the last day possible before they were considered to be out of compliance with the state mandate,” she said.

Franklin Memorial Hospital/FCHN, listed as MaineHealth, is the biggest private employer in Franklin County, according to 2020 employment data from the Maine Department of Labor.

Joanna Backman, FCHN’s director of human resources, said the network was “hopeful” that staff losses due to the mandate would be “small numbers.”

Though the mandate-related separations and resignations include only around 6.6% of employees, FCHN’s staff losses due to the mandate are higher than the total percentage loss for all of MaineHealth — “about 1.5 to 2 percent of the health system’s 23,000-employee workforce,” Joe Lawlor reports.

However, Backman feels certain that many of the employees who “were on the fence” about getting the COVID-19 vaccination ended up doing so because the health network “(shared) a lot of information … timelines … (and) offered them to speak directly with our chief medical officer.”

“We were hoping that (providing education on) the information regarding the science behind the vaccine would be powerful as it was for a large number of people,” she said.

When the mandate was first announced, the Franklin Journal spoke with employees at Franklin Memorial Hospital and FCHN who were split on the issue.

“I think everybody who is in health care has been mandated to do a lot of things including getting vaccinated for hepatitis B, which most people don’t get vaccinated for,” clinical-educator Tania Dawson said.

Pharmacist Louisa Hoyt said she believed that it’s “a public responsibility” for health care providers to be vaccinated.

On the other side, environmental services-employee Kali Staier, who was at the time unvaccinated and on the fence, was unhappy with the mandate coming from the government. She said she preferred for an employer like MaineHealth to issue it.

Sarah Carrozza, a healthcare worker in Wilton, said at the time that she planned to work up until she was “fired” at the deadline.

“We need Mills to know that we are already understaffed and even a ‘small’ number who will be losing their job will be detrimental to our health care system,” Carrozza said.

Departments are understaffed, but services are still operating

FCHN was not able to provide numbers on which specific departments and roles the 48 resignations and separations came from.

“Former staff came from departments all across FCHN, both clinical and non-clinical,” Mastrangelo said — though the majority were clinical, according to the numbers.

Mastrangelo referred the Franklin Journal to FCHN’s webpage for open positions, where there were 108 job listings at the time of publication.

However, both Mastrangelo and Backman clarified that “not all of the open positions are a result of the state-mandated vaccine requirement.”

There, at least nine openings are related to positions with NorthStar, such as drivers, emergency medical technicians (EMT) and paramedics. Backman estimated there are around 70 positions with NorthStar when it is fully staffed.

There are an additional 14 open positions in the emergency department and emergency room. There are also 38 open positions for registered nurses across different departments — 10 of which are in the emergency room.

Backman said that FCHN and MaineHealth, as a whole, have also been affected by the ongoing “national workforce shortage.”

“Both because of the shortage, not just because of the mandate … all of our clinical teams and others are experiencing some additional overtime,” Backman said. “That’s happening across healthcare everywhere and was happening before the mandate.”

Nevertheless, Backman said that FCHN has “not had to stop any services because of the mandate.”

“The staff who remained are amazing, and they are really stepping up to the plate for some of the vacancies,” Backman said. “We’re recruiting very quickly and with a lot of innovation right now.”

Backman added that staff who resigned or separated from FCHN due to the mandate “are welcome to return” if “they change their minds” and decide to get vaccinated.

“We wanted to respect everyone who made a different decision,” Backman said. “As people gain more information and the COVID vaccine becomes increasingly prevalent and acceptable, some of those folks who have left us may want to come back and we would welcome them.”

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