Zac Spolar found himself running around in a frenzy amid the COVID-19 surge in December, tending to three or four patients at once and laboring late into the night at a Los Angeles hospital. The hardest part of the job, he said, was having to constantly console people who couldn’t be with their loved ones in the intensive care unit, even if they were dying.
Now Spolar is among the many essential workers threatened with unemployment and diminished job prospects for refusing vaccination.
Police, firefighters, doctors, nurses, paramedics, airport security and prison guards across the country are facing termination this week if they don’t comply with their employers’ vaccine requirements. Many have already lost their jobs or have been disciplined. Other say they will defy the vaccine mandates on principle. As a result, essential workers may soon be in short supply in many parts of America.
Spolar said he isn’t opposed to vaccination in theory; his wife already got the shot. But he is young and fit with antibodies higher than they would be with a vaccine, thanks to getting COVID from a patient before Christmas. “The only reason I got sick is because I had a week where I worked six days in a row with crazy hours, I wasn’t getting any sleep, I was all run down.” Not getting the vaccine boils down to a matter of principle for him. Why force someone to take a drug that they don’t want or need?
Spolar is now reduced to part-time contract medical work with lower pay and no benefits, retirement, or upward mobility as no hospital will hire him unvaccinated. And with Los Angeles County’s vaccine passport mandate for restaurants, movie theaters, retail establishments, and other places, he cannot move freely in the city he serves.
He is not alone. Los Angeles city employees are required to be vaccinated by Tuesday, Oct. 19. Roughly a quarter of Los Angeles fire personnel have signed a notice of intent to sue the city if they are terminated for not being vaccinated. There are rebellions in other parts of the country. In Newark, New Jersey, firefighters and police officers are protesting the city’s vaccine mandates. In New York, Gov. Kathy Hochul announced she will deploy the National Guard to compensate for staff shortages due to the firing of unvaccinated nurses and hospital workers.
The U.S. federal government has set a deadline of Monday, Nov. 22 for all civilian federal workers to be vaccinated. The Transportation Security Administration has said four-in-10 of its employees are unvaccinated; any terminations of TSA staff due to not meeting the deadline would come right before one of America’s biggest travel periods, the Thanksgiving holiday. Meanwhile, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agency is in an uproar over Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas threatening to terminate a significant portion of the unvaccinated workforce.
Similar protests and potential firings over the COVID vaccines are happening all over America in government workplaces at the federal, state, and local level as well as in many parts of the private sector.
Two days before I spoke with Spolar, an anesthesiologist named Christopher Rake was escorted out of UCLA Health in California for refusing to be vaccinated on grounds that it violated ethics and personal freedom. He had created a support group for like-minded medical workers, Citizens United for Freedom, made up of both vaccinated and unvaccinated members.
Rake talked to me about his final days on the job. “I wasn’t put on the schedule Friday [Oct. 1] but I went to work anyway, and it was a good thing that I did because they called me and said: ‘We need your help in operating room eight, somebody called in sick.’” Everything seemed fine until Rake received an email later informing him that he had been placed on administrative leave without pay. Still, he came into work on the next Monday. After a confusing discussion with management about whether he had been terminated or not, security guards led him off the campus.
Rake was just one of many casualties of the first vaccine mandates imposed in September and early October. A hospital in upstate New York made so many of its nurses resign mid-September over the vaccine that it had to suspend delivering babies. Three weeks later, Northwell Health, New York’s largest health care provider, fired 1,400 employees over the same issue. By Oct. 6, Kaiser Permanente had placed 2,200 employees nationwide on unpaid leave.
But it’s not just hospital workers who are getting cut or forced out.
“Me and my coworkers never took time off because of stress,” said Josh Sattley, a veteran Beverly Hills firefighter, explaining what it was like working through the pandemic. “When we got sick, we took COVID leave, and then came back to work right after—it wasn’t devastating for any of us.” Sattley contracted the virus on the job, and he isn’t necessarily opposed to vaccines. However, the aggressiveness of the mandates and skepticism of the pharmaceutical industry led him to request a religious exemption after he prayed about the issue.
Sattley said that the Beverly Hills city bureaucracy swatted down the initial slate of applications for religious exemptions. The city implemented its own process to judge applications, which included religious tests to determine if one is, in fact, a true believer. Sattley described it as an “interrogation” about his religious beliefs.
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