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He lost his Mayo job for failing to comply with its vaccine policy; he still doesn't understand why

Kinney was 1 of 700 employees to lose his job. He worked remotely.

01 Robert Kinney
Robert Kinney, who worked from home as a data analyst, was recently fired from his job at Mayo Clinic because he refused to be vaccinated for COVID-19. Kinney said he was told by his doctor he couldn't have vaccines because of a stem cell transplant he received to treat multiple sclerosis. Kinney is photographed on Friday, Feb. 4, 2022, at his home in Rochester.
Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin
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ROCHESTER — A month after being terminated from Mayo Clinic for failing to follow its vaccine policy, Robert Kinney of Rochester betrays little bitterness over the loss of his job.

He says he would return to work if Mayo called him back.

“If my boss at Mayo called me up tomorrow and said, ‘there was a clerical error. Can you please come back to work?’ Yeah, I’d come back to work tomorrow,” Kinney said.

Kinney became one of the estimated 700 people to lose their jobs for failing to comply with the clinic’s vaccine mandate. Yet it remains a mystery to this 52-year-old father of three why he didn’t qualify for an exemption from the mandate both for medical and work-related reasons.

Kinney, a one-time Mayo quality associate, worked from home in his basement and posed no risk to the clinic’s patients or employees.

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In 2018, Kinney was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis by his Mayo primary care physician. Prescribed medicine that he was told could only slow the disease’s progress, not stop it, Kinney pursued a more aggressive option. In 2019, he was accepted into a clinical trial at Northwestern University for a stem cell treatment.

Kinney returned home and was found to no longer have the disease. But the Northwestern doctor was emphatic on one point.

“The doctor there said, ‘whatever you do, don’t get a vaccine or anything that will tempt your immune system to overact, because that could start your MS coming back’,” Kinney said. “‘It’s in remission, and we want it to stay in remission forever.’”

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Then, COVID-19 hit, and Mayo issued its mandate that all employees and staff get the vaccine or obtain a medical or religious exemption.
At first, Kinney thought he would be cleared for a medical exemption. His Mayo primary care physician, he said, signed the form for an exemption request. But then later, the physician called Kinney at home to say he had changed his mind. After speaking with two other doctors, he had decided that Kinney should get the COVID-19 vaccine after all, Kinney said.

Kinney was denied an exemption. He appealed and was rejected. He sought a religious exemption with the same results.

Kinney said he found the process contradictory and incomprehensible in another way. Soon after being hired by Mayo in July of last year, Kinney gave a blood draw that showed he had no vaccine for tetanus, mumps or measles as a result of his stem cell procedure.

Despite the absence of these vaccine protections in his system, Kinney was granted an accommodation because he worked from home.

“The occupational health person (at Mayo) said, ‘Oh, it doesn’t matter, because you work at home.”

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A Mayo Clinic spokesperson said the clinic is not able to discuss individual employment cases with third parties, but said the decision to include remote workers in its vaccine policy was consistent with its values.

"Mayo Clinic transitioned to a required COVID-19 vaccination program for all staff to advance the primary value of Mayo Clinic - the needs of the patient come first," said Mayo spokeswoman Kelley Luckstein. "No matter where staff are located, unexpected absences due to COVID-19 exposures and diagnoses are a threat to business continuity, and hence, serving our patients, regardless of role.

"This is a time when Mayo Clinic must stand firmly behind the evidence supporting the efficacy and safety of COVID-19 vaccines to help protect the health and safety of our patients, workforce, visitors, and communities. Based on science and data, it's clear that vaccination keeps people out of the hospital and saves lives."

Kinney can only speculate as to why Mayo’s remote employees fell under the same policy that affected nurses and doctors.

“I know I’m not as vital as a nurse or a doctor, so I can honestly see that that would be a smart business decision to say, ‘we have 90 percent of our people vaccinated,’” Kinney said. “Who is expendable? I am expendable.”

On Jan. 3, Kinney received an email from Mayo saying it was taking “corrective action” for his non-compliance with its vaccine policy. He was being terminated.

03 Robert Kinney
Robert Kinney, who worked from home as a data analyst, was recently fired from his job at Mayo Clinic because he refused to be vaccinated for COVID-19. Kinney said he was told by his doctor he couldn't have vaccines because of a stem cell transplant he received to treat multiple sclerosis. Kinney is photographed on Friday, Feb. 4, 2022, at his home in Rochester.
Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin

Soon afterward, Kinney returned his badge, laptop and other equipment to the clinic.

“I went into an empty (Plummer) building and just left a bag full of my stuff on my boss’s desk,” Kinney said. “It was kind of sad, because when I worked there, I took great pride in working there. When I was hired at Mayo Clinic, I thought this is a really good thing, I’m supporting the No. 1 hospital in the world.”

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It hasn’t taken long for Kinney to bounce back from his employment setback. A licensed certified public accountant with two master's degrees, Kinney began teaching full-time at Rochester Community and Technical College.

“They always need someone to teach accounting and statistics,” Kinney said.

And starting Wednesday, he will begin work as a process engineer at New York University in Manhattan. He will be making twice what he was paid at Mayo and will work remotely.

Kinney said he has been invited to join a lawsuit against Mayo that some former Mayo employees have considered filing, but he declined the invitation.

“I’d rather just move on with life and be happy,” he said.

Matthew Stolle has been a Post Bulletin reporter since 2000 and covered many of the beats that make up a newsroom. In his first several years, he covered K-12 education and higher education in Rochester before shifting to politics. He has also been a features writer. Today, Matt jumps from beat to beat, depending on what his editor and the Rochester area are producing in terms of news. Readers can reach Matthew at 507-281-7415 or mstolle@postbulletin.com.
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