Terminated For Vaccine Decision

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Maybe my story isn’t that interesting. Maybe it’s just me whining or seeking closure.

Or maybe it’s a small peephole into a monolithic and dystopian future for corporate America, where deviation from groupthink is a trapdoor into unemployment. 

As I walked toward the main executive building on my last day of work to turn in my laptop, I couldn’t help but notice the Pride Progress Flag positioned prominently on the roof. I didn’t see the American flag. Perhaps it was there and was just obstructed from my view by the giant Pride flag. Or maybe it wasn’t there. I also didn’t see any other flags supporting any other minority people groups or opinions. It was just that one flag flying, in March. If that’s the message the company wants to herald, that’s their prerogative. I just felt some irony as I handed over my badge to the corporate thought police— guilty of holding to my convictions and a minority position that posed zero harm to the company, except possibly a threat to a particular political paradigm.

It seems diversity matters unless it doesn’t matter to the people that matter most. But maybe I was born this way, instinctively skeptical of new exotic drugs and bound by conviction to refuse them until I see all the long-term data. If that makes me reckless, guilty as charged. I believe this type of skepticism is healthy and is exactly what made me a valuable Quality Control employee for 18 years.

In 2022 it made me dispensable.

But I’m not here to badmouth the company that put money in my wallet for the food on my family’s table for almost 18 years.  I’m not here to divulge trade secrets or blow whistles. I’m just here to share my story over the past 9 months, since first receiving the official internal notice from my former place of employment, Merck & Co., Inc, that there would be an employee Covid vaccine mandate.

As a Senior Specialist in the Quality Division, I was well-trained in the scientific art of making quality and safety decisions based on substantial data trends and risk-based analyses. It was with this same skill-set and code of ethics that I became convinced that I should not get any of the available Covid vaccines at that time. A thing happens when you become fully convinced in your own mind to do or not do something— you form a personal conviction. My religious belief system and its scriptures warn that violating a personal conviction will result in certain spiritual injury. I believe denying personal conviction is a dangerous action with far-reaching consequences. It’s a serious matter and it’s the reason I put in a religious exemption to the vaccines.

Four months after applying for the exemption I finally received a generic email from Global HR that it had been denied. No specific reason given. I was then left with two options: (1) find a way to change my conviction to match the company mandate or (2) suffer the consequences of following my current conviction.

My attempts to change my conviction did not work. I assure you that I tried. When a loved one told me to “stop being a martyr, just get the damn shot so your family can eat”, I wondered if I was indeed being selfish for following my personal conviction on this matter. But, after further introspection and counsel, I decided I was not wrong to stay my course.

Then, in early 2022, I saw some slivers of hope that the company would change its mind on its mandate.  First, in January, the Supreme Court decided it was not constitutional to impose a federal vaccine mandate. While the follow-up media mantra was that private companies could still do whatever they wanted, I watched quite a few corporations quickly drop their mandates. Maybe Merck would follow suit, I thought. Then, soon after, data came out that the vaccinated and unvaccinated were transmitting Covid at very similar rates and the variants were indeed weakening. Surely the data no longer supported the claim that unvaccinated employees were such a disproportionate health risk to companies that they needed to be extinguished immediately. In that vein, if I was such a clear and present danger to the company, why did it take them seven months to fire me? The moment I said I wasn’t going to take the shot, they should have shown me the door. But they allowed me to compromise the health of my coworkers for 7 months. Shame on them for letting me put my coworkers at risk, while I worked from home all those months.

Then, in March 2022, still employed due to them not having a replacement for me during the busiest quarter of the year, I received a top-end 2021 performance evaluation. My superiors determined that my previous year of working from home was worthy of high marks and a significant raise. It felt like a mixed message.

Sure enough, a couple weeks later, on March 29, I got an email from HR that said I had one last chance to get the shot or I would be terminated on March 31. Then, on March 31 I received my last email from HR, telling me I was being let go that day. My pay and benefits would stop that day. No severance and no thank you’s for my 18 years of service.

In the end, a group of faceless folks on a secret global committee decided the fate of an 18-year employee based on how he answered five questions on a religious exemption questionnaire. Maybe I am just a bad test taker and my answers weren’t as sophisticated as those who got their exemptions approved. It’s possible my beliefs were actually stronger and truer than some of those who got accepted and I just worded things in a manner not to the secret committee’s liking. Maybe the whole process was a lot more subjective than they care to admit. Maybe it was an outright sham.

It didn’t matter; I was put in the damaged goods pile.

Everything I built for two decades was gone in a matter of a few months. 

I was a high-performing eighteen-year company employee. I recently crossed the six-figure gross salary mark, which was a big deal for me and my wife, who stays at home with my four kids. I held a niche role that only two other employees on plant site held and was the tenured one in that group. I was on the front lines for nearly every regulatory inspection as a trusted subject matter expert—my records show nearly 30 presentations over my 18 years. They trusted me to effectively communicate highly-specified trade information with the FDA. But they did not trust me to work from home for a few more weeks at the tail end of a pandemic (when I proved I was highly effective doing so). Nor did they trust me to come on site and follow the mask-and-test precautions that the other unvaccinated (exemption-approved) employees were given.

Was Merck really not willing to make accommodation for a high-performing 18-year company employee? 

What was their rationale here? Well, I tried to get an answer for that question, believe me. I only got one response, which essentially said “we believe our process was fair…don’t ask again”. Fair for them, I suppose, but not for me or the others who were denied accommodation. Still, it would have been nice to hear one good reason. Just one specific and logical explanation. I mean, getting fired and not knowing why your constitutionally-protected religious accommodation was denied seems a bit… well, unconstitutional.

Or were they following a script rooted not in logic or science but politics or social credit scoring?

When I turned in my computer on my last day I was met by my director and associate director. They supported me and expressed regrets in how this played out. I received dozens of emails on my last day and the days following questioning the legitimacy of the company’s decision. I even received an email from a coworker who was injured by the vaccine and wished she had taken a different route. I heard from exactly zero people that thought the company was making the right call by firing a high-performing eighteen-year company employee that was completing 100% of his duties from home at the tail-end of a waning pandemic, when unvaccinated transmissibility statistics showed no increased safety risk.

What am I left to believe then? Was the firing retribution for not following a script? Is corporate social credit scoring more reality than theory? Did the federal government promise kickbacks to companies for terminating non-compliant employees? I really don’t know how to explain it.

So I am left unemployed, creatively testing the limits of our savings and the generosity of others. I’m on Week 8 of my battle with an unemployment compensation office that thinks I was fired for breaking company policy. I suppose I was. But we all know nuance is not a thing to ignore here. Plus, there was no policy in place when I was hired stating that the company could mandate experimental therapeutics at their whim.

Life will be different going forward. But as the old adage goes, “I don’t know what the future holds but I know Who holds the future.” I sleep better knowing that no employer on Earth is my sovereign provider. And I’ve slept well knowing my kids saw me hold strong to my personal conviction, even if it meant temporary hardship. My two months of unemployment have reinvigorated latent passions, spawned new pursuits and has meant more time connecting with family. I believe the right door will open at the right time. One door closes and… you know how it goes.

So, yes, I’m frustrated but not bitter. I know we don’t live in a perfect world. It’s not the first time a company made decisions for their own best interests first. They are the corporation and I was the cog. It’s an old, old story.

Now it’s time to look forward and I truly believe the future will be bright.

I suppose I’m just left wondering why Merck had to make the last nine months so dark.

By Pete Falconero

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