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

Oct 24, 2021
Originally published on October 25, 2021 10:28 am

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

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.

Meteorologist Karl Bohnak delivers the forecast for Michigan's Upper Peninsula in December 2014.
TV6 & FOX UP / YouTube

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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In Detroit, 400 workers at the Henry Ford Health System quit their jobs because of a vaccine mandate. North Carolina-based Novant Health fired 175 employees. Almost 1,900 workers in Washington state are out, including a head college football coach. Workers who refused to get vaccinated represent only a tiny fraction of overall employees across the country. Still, NPR's Andrea Hsu talked with a few of them to understand why not getting the vaccine is worth losing their jobs.

ANDREA HSU, BYLINE: For 33 years, Karl Bohnak had his dream job.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KARL BOHNAK: Winds this evening - well, they have a north component or slightly north...

HSU: Bohnak was chief meteorologist at TV6 on Michigan's Upper Peninsula, a self-described weather nut who lives for snowstorms. His steady forecasts led to a promotional campaign at his station in the 1990s.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: That's what Karl says.

HSU: And it stuck ever since. Someone even wrote a song about him.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHVIED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL GROUP: (Singing) That's what Karl says.

HSU: Then this year came the biggest storm of his career. Gray Television, which owns his station and many more across the country, announced that all of its employees must be fully vaccinated - managers by mid-September and two weeks after that for everyone else. Bohnak knew right away he'd be out by the end of the month.

BOHNAK: I just did not want to take the shot. I felt it was my right as a human being and a citizen of the United States to decide what I put in my body.

HSU: Never mind that the science shows vaccines protect not just you but those around you and that not being vaccinated could put your colleagues at risk.

BOHNAK: This is America, and we have a choice.

HSU: Well, on September 14, he had just finished the 7 p.m. news when his general manager called him urgently. He'd learned that as chief meteorologist, Bohnak was considered a manager. His deadline to be vaccinated was the next day, not the end of the month. Bohnak went home for dinner, as he always did, and returned for the late-night news. He delivered the forecast at 10 and 11.

BOHNAK: And that was it. I walked out, and I knew that I'd never walk into that building again after 33 years.

HSU: Karl Bohnak is 68. For him, retirement has come early. But many others who have quit or been fired over vaccine mandates are still in the prime of their careers.

JENNIFER BRIDGES: My name's Jennifer Bridges. I've been a registered nurse a little over eight years now. Most of the time was Houston Methodist until I got fired back in June.

HSU: Bridges was one of about 150 people who quit or were fired from the hospital system for refusing the vaccine. They made up less than 1% of employees, but they were loud.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Frontline health care workers fighting back in Texas - nearly...

HSU: Bridges became the face of the resistance. And that led to five job offers, including two at hospitals, all before she was actually fired.

BRIDGES: People were offering me jobs back in May.

HSU: She's now in private nursing, tending to one patient full time. For other Houston Methodist workers, getting fired has had graver consequences. Becky Melcer worked as a scheduler, setting up diagnostic procedures, sometimes surgeries. It was a career she was proud of. She'd planned to retire from the hospital. Instead, she, too, was fired in June.

BECKY MELCER: Two weeks shy of 15 years.

HSU: She applied for unemployment but was denied, told she was not eligible since she'd been fired for misconduct. She's appealing the decision. Meantime, looking for a new job has been tough. She tried other hospitals. But at every turn, she encountered vaccine mandates.

MELCER: Started interviewing in one, and then they were going to start requiring it - and put my application at another hospital, and then they started requiring it.

HSU: Now she's trying for customer service jobs outside of health care, and she's getting a start in real estate. The thing about Melcer, she was not originally against the COVID vaccine. She'd actually made an appointment to get it back in January. But twice, her first shot was delayed for reasons beyond her control. Then she says God came to her in a dream.

MELCER: He kept telling me, don't take it; don't take it. And I said, really? And I kept questioning. And he kept coming back with, yeah, don't take it.

HSU: Despite the strong evidence that vaccines work, her mind is made up. She will never take the vaccine. And so at 59 years old, her job search continues.

Andrea Hsu, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.