Attempt to meet OSHA standard, require vaccination status badges met with resistance

JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – Ballad Health’s “badge buddy” system, which required unvaccinated employees to display a specific colored card near their badge, is gone less than two weeks after it started.

CEO Alan Levine emailed employees about the walkback Tuesday. He told News Channel 11 Wednesday he’d made “a bad decision … for the right reasons.”

A federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) mandate requires health care employers to develop a plan that determines employee vaccination status if the workplace will allow any exceptions to masking, social distancing and the like.

Ballad hopes to allow some team meetings, congregate breaks and other group staff gatherings to become maskless again — but per OSHA that can only happen if all staff present are vaccinated.

The rule is designed to prevent inadvertent spread of the virus in healthcare settings while allowing a return to some normalcy.

“The underlying purpose of the OSHA requirement is laudable, I agree with it,” Levine said. “We don’t want our team members to be exposed. How we did it, our team members spoke up…”

Last week, Ballad told employees that if they weren’t vaccinated or didn’t want to reveal their vaccination status they’d have to wear orange “badge buddy” cards at work. Vaccinated workers could wear blue badge buddies.

That would have made it relatively easy to determine whether people could remove masks in a group setting. Ballad’s employee vaccination rate currently stands at 62 percent.

“You know, the orange and blue thing – that was a swing and a miss,” Levine said. “Bad decision, right reason. The reason was we needed to comply with the OSHA requirements.”

Tuesday’s email informed employees they could still choose to wear a blue badge buddy. “Folks who are vaccinated and don’t wish to disclose may choose to not wear the blue badge buddy and folks who are not vaccinated would not wear anything on their badge either,” the email reads.

The upshot is that unless everyone is wearing a blue badge buddy, meetings, lunch breaks, training, etc. will require masking and social distancing.

Levine said employee opinions about the original plan varied.

“Many of our team members want us to make the vaccine mandatory,” he said. “Many of our team members wanted the orange and blue cards.

“But at the end of the day there were enough team members that said ‘I feel like my personal rights are not being put at the top of the list of things that are important.’ And ultimately I agreed with them and we changed it, and now I think we have a policy that our team members generally support. Even if they may not like the outcome I think they feel like they had input on it.”