Riverside employee

A Riverside Medical Center employee secures her mask as she walks into the hospital.

KANKAKEE — Five Riverside Healthcare nurses facing possible termination or suspension at week’s end were granted a lifeline Monday in Kankakee County Circuit Court.

At the conclusion of a nearly three-hour hearing Monday, Associate Judge Nancy Nicholson granted a temporary restraining order filed by six Riverside nurses or nurse practitioners.

The ruling applies to nurse practitioners Neelie Panozzo and Kathryn Hamblen; and nurses, Valerie Kietzman, Judy Busato and Carmen Wymore.

A sixth hospital employee, Amy Memenga, a nursing supervisor who says she was fired in September for not obtaining a COVID-19 vaccination, was determined to have fallen outside of the temporary restraining order timeline, Nicholson ruled.

Monday’s action was just the first step, noted Daniel Suhr, the attorney representing the nurses.

The order will be in place until the next major step set to take place at 11 a.m. Nov. 19 hearing in which the preliminary injunction will be heard.

Suhr, however, felt a significant hurdle had been crossed with Monday’s granting of the temporary restraining order which allows the five nurses to remain employed.

“We’re very happy,” he said, noting he and the nurses appreciated the judge’s recognition of the important rights at stake.

“Today’s ruling is preserving the status quo. This means they can continue their jobs,” he said.

He added if the hospital would fire those unvaccinated, it would be in violation of the Illinois Health Care Right of Conscience Act as well as Gov. JB Pritzker’s executive order.

Suhr added it was their belief the law allowing religious exemptions-strongly held beliefs regarding vaccination is intentionally clear and broad.

The law, he noted, is meant to give employees the “fullest possible protection of conscience rights,” meaning workers should be protected in the exercise of their conscience even if it is contrary to the employer’s wishes or to the demands of the jobs.

What impact does Monday’s ruling have on Nov. 19 hearing, Suhr was asked.

“We are confident in our arguments,” he said. “This is a positive sign the judge recognizes these rights.”

Riverside’s administration noted Monday afternoon that while it disagrees with the court’s decision, the hospital would comply with the court’s requirement that it allows these employees to continue working as the legal process proceeds.

“These and other unvaccinated team members are required to comply with stringent safety protocols, including wearing an N95 mask at all times and weekly testing,” read a statement from the hospital.

The hospital plans to contest Monday’s ruling.

In its statement Monday, the hospital said, “We are unwavering in our belief that requiring our employees to be vaccinated or receive an approved religious-strongly held belief or medical exemption will allow us to provide the safest environment possible, and that the criteria we’ve been using to guide our decisions is fair, justified and clearly focused on protecting the health and safety or our patients and workforce.”

The administration noted late last week that 90 percent of its 2,913-member workforce has been vaccinated.

“We continue to be deeply grateful for every member of our team, the vast majority of whom have already received the vaccine or an approved exemption,” the hospital said. “We hope that those who haven’t will also take this important step before the deadline on Oct. 31.”

Panozzo, who has been at the forefront of the fight to continue working by being tested weekly, expressed gratitude for the granting of the restraining order.

“We passionately love to serve our patients,” she said.

She noted that with nursing shortages growing, she is grateful these jobs will not be lost by month’s end due to suspension or firings.

“This is not just about the six of us,” she said, referring the many others who had not joined the suit. “We have worked for these past 20 months or so without being vaccinated. I don’t know why they felt that had to change. The law clearly protects those with religious belief.”

She said regardless of the pandemic, the hospital’s mandate was violating the group’s constitutional rights.

While Monday’s ruling applies only the five parties, Hamblen hopes that Monday’s ruling would provide protection for all other unvaccinated employees.

“It’s my hope Riverside would step down,” Hamblen said. “We want to stay here and do our job. We are not looking for money. We just want to keep our job.”

Lee Provost, an award-winning reporter, has been writing local news stories for The Daily Journal since 1988. He is a lifelong resident of the region. Provost can be reached at lprovost@daily-journal.com.