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Unvaccinated Legacy workers face termination after religious exemption requests denied

Joseph Steininger has been a CNA the past 14 years. He's preparing to look for a new job after his COVID vaccine exemption request was denied by Legacy Health.

PORTLAND, Ore. — Legacy Health employees who are not vaccinated against COVID-19 and have not been granted an exemption will be placed on administrative leave starting Friday. 

In the coming weeks, those employees could lose their jobs entirely.

Joseph Steininger is one of those employees. A certified nursing assistant at Legacy Health's Meridian Park Hospital in Tualatin, Steininger has been a CNA for 14 years and enjoys his work.

"I love being able to help people get better and help brighten their days and be able to be there, to help the nurses," said Steininger.

It's a job he's about to lose. Joseph is not vaccinated against COVID-19 and does not plan on getting the shot. He said doing so would go against his religious beliefs. 

"I have a very strong conviction that if I feel like I should not put something in my body, I shouldn't do it. That goes for marijuana. That goes for alcohol," said Steininger. 

Steininger requested a religious exemption from the COVID vaccine, even citing scripture on his form.

RELATED: Portland law professor examines religious exemptions from COVID vaccine mandates

"In Romans it talks about not eating anything that goes against your conscience and that would be similar to injecting something into your body," he said.

Under the Oregon Health Authority's vaccination rule, and Legacy's own policy, health care workers must provide proof of vaccination or provide a medical or religious exemption. 

Currently, 93% of Legacy Health's nearly 14,000 employees are vaccinated.

Joseph remains unvaccinated and is one of hundreds of Legacy employees who had their exemption request denied. 

Legacy employees who requested religious exemptions received an email on Monday saying they would be placed on administrative leave starting Friday — unless they get the COVID vaccine.

But Steininger feels like his request was not addressed directly. 

RELATED: Here's how many Oregon state employees have requested a COVID vaccine exemption

"That doesn't make any sense. Like it says, they had a panel that looked at [the exemption requests] all individually, but they can't give me an individual response?" said Steininger.

Earlier this week,  the Oregon Nurses Association (ONA) put out a statement critical of Legacy's decision, suggesting that it could worsen a growing staffing crisis. 

"Oregon’s vaccine mandate allows for medical and deeply held religious belief exemptions and blanket rejections are not only bad policy, but they also deepen staffing crises at hospitals across the state and ultimately impact quality of patient care," said ONA.

ONA said 18 nurses at Legacy Silverton Medical Center's labor and delivery department are facing termination — nearly half the staff in that department.

But Kecia Kelly, senior vice president and chief nurse at Legacy Health said ONA is wrong. Each exemption was reviewed by a panel of experts and there was no blanket rejection.

"I'm actually saying that is not true. What we actually did do is we looked at every individual case and it may have felt that that was a blanket denial because we did have to notify a lot of individuals that they did not receive those exemptions but it was all out of our commitment to patient safety and wanting to make sure that our employees had time to make an informed decision to get vaccinated," said Kelly. 

It's unclear how many, if any, religious exemption requests Legacy approved.

RELATED: One of the largest US employers just required vaccine for frontline union workers

KGW asked ONA Communications Director Scott Palmer and Board President Lynda Pond what they thought of Legacy's explanation. 

"That strikes me as a little surprising because our staff on the ground at Legacy Silverton have not heard of a single nurse who has submitted a religious exemption and who has had that exemption approved. It sounds to me like that's kind of the definition of a blanket rejection," said Palmer who went on to say, "obviously we believe that there are some cases in which those exemptions should be treated seriously and should be granted."

ONA said the issue is bigger than workers losing their jobs; it's also about the added stress and workload placed on the nurses who remain employed.

"What I really want to stress is that it's not just the mandate, that it is the actual impact of COVID. It's the actual impact of short staffing consistently by hospitals over the past 10 years and nurses have just reached their max," said Pond.

The vaccine mandate for health care workers comes at a time when nurses are in short supply nationwide

Legacy officials are holding out hope that the remaining unvaccinated workers will change their minds but many, like Joseph, are ready to walk away. 

"I will lose my job over this if it doesn't change ... At the same time that I believe that I'm not supposed to take this vaccine, I do believe God will provide another way," said Steininger.

Legacy said it's currently using contracted workers and has slowed elective surgeries to deal with the staffing issues.

Numerous Legacy GoHealth locations have temporarily closed. Officials we spoke to do not know how long those closures will last. 

For Kelly, the vaccine requirement was necessary and the near-universal buy in among staff is a source of pride for the organization. 

"We will have a hundred percent of our care providers that are vaccinated and we'll be able to care for the patients in our community. That is something that we're very proud of," said Kelly.

WATCH: Here are the approved vaccine exemptions for the COVID vaccine

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