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Economy & Business

Thousands of workers are opting to get fired, rather than take the vaccine

A group of demonstrators hold signs as they protest against mandated vaccines outside the Michigan State Capitol on Aug. 6, 2021 in Lansing, Michigan.
A group of demonstrators hold signs as they protest against mandated vaccines outside the Michigan State Capitol on Aug. 6, 2021 in Lansing, Michigan.

For 33 years, Karl Bohnak worked at his dream job delivering weather forecasts on TV for what he considers one of the most challenging but beautiful spots in the United States — Michigan's Upper Peninsula.

He became so popular that "That's what Karl says!" became a slogan at his station in the 1990s and even inspired a song.

But Bohnak's time as chief meteorologist for news station TV6 came to an abrupt end last month. He was fired after refusing to comply with the vaccine mandate imposed by his station's corporate owner, Gray Television.

"I just did not want to take the shot," says Bohnak, who is 68. "I felt it was my right as a human being and a citizen of the U.S. to decide what I put in my body."

Across the country, employers are firing workers for refusing to comply with vaccine mandates. Some people are opting to quit their jobs rather than take the shot.

These workers represent only a tiny fraction of overall employees, not even 1% in some workplaces. But it can add up to thousands of people in many states.

Washington state reports that so far, nearly 1,900 state workers, including the head football coach at Washington State University, have quit or been fired for refusing the vaccine. In Michigan, 400 workers at the Henry Ford Health System in Detroit walked away from their jobs. North Carolina-based Novant Health fired about 175 employees. And the list goes on.

Their resistance has stirred great condemnation and controversy. Many view unvaccinated workers as a potential risk to the workplace. And overwhelmingly, workers have accepted and even embraced the science showing vaccines protect not only you but those around you.

The vast majority of Americans have complied with vaccine mandates. But for the vaccine holdouts, walking away from a job comes at a cost, one that's bigger for some than others.

In June, about 150 workers at the Houston Methodist hospital system quit or were fired for refusing to get a vaccine, out of a workforce of 26,000. One of them was registered nurse Jennifer Bridges, who has led the fight against Houston Methodist. The hospital system announced its vaccine requirement on March 31.

Bridges quickly became the public face of the movement against vaccine mandates. She had five job offers even before she was formally fired, two of them from hospitals that had not yet mandated the vaccine. She started a new job with a private nursing company on the very day she was fired from Houston Methodist. She now cares for a single patient full-time and doesn't believe she'll face a vaccine mandate.

"There's no Medicaid or Medicare [funding]. It's all private pay, so the government has no control over it," she says.

In June 2021, about 150 employees of the Houston Methodist hospital system resigned or were fired after refusing a COVID-19 vaccine.
Francois Picard / AFP via Getty Images
In June 2021, about 150 employees of the Houston Methodist hospital system resigned or were fired after refusing a COVID-19 vaccine.

For other Houston Methodist workers, getting fired has had graver consequences.

Becky Melcer worked as a scheduler, setting up diagnostic procedures and surgeries from an office building across the street from the hospital. It was a career she was proud of. She had expected to retire from Houston Methodist in another six years or so. Instead, she was fired in June, two weeks shy of her 15-year mark.

She applied for unemployment but was denied, told she was ineligible because she'd been fired for misconduct for not following company policy. She's appealing the decision while trying to find another source of income.

"If I wasn't married, I don't know what I would be doing," says Melcer.

At 59, Melcer has had a tough time finding work. She initially tried applying to other hospitals, but they, too, were going to require the vaccine. Now she's looking at customer service jobs outside of health care, even though they won't pay as much as her old job. She's also getting a start in real estate.

Melcer was not originally opposed to the Covid vaccine. She'd actually made an appointment to get her first shot in early January. But twice, that appointment was delayed for reasons beyond her control. Then, she says, God came to her in a dream.

"He kept telling me, 'Don't take it. Don't take it.' And I said, 'Really?' And I kept questioning it, and He kept coming back with, 'Yeah, don't take it,'" she says.

So, despite the strong evidence that the vaccines work, her mind is made up. She says she'll never take the vaccine.

In Michigan, weatherman Bohnak still has a couple of side gigs doing forecasts for local radio. Mostly, though, he is settling into retirement, a year and a half earlier than he had planned.

Before he was fired last month, he had been given the option of resigning.

"They wanted me to go off saying, 'Hey, let's celebrate Karl Bohnak!'" he says.

He declined. Instead, on his last day, he just delivered the forecast like he's done for 33 years and walked out.

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