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Savannah River Site implements COVID vaccine mandate

Published: Oct. 13, 2021 at 6:48 PM EDT
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AIKEN, S.C. (WRDW/WAGT) - People across the river region could be out of a job as one of our largest employers starts to mandate COVID vaccines. Last month Savannah River Nuclear Solutions, management contractor at the Savannah River Site, announced all of its employees must be fully vaccinated by Nov. 30.

On Thursday, it’ll start letting go workers who haven’t gotten their first dose.

We talked to SRNS employees who say they’re about to get fired without a fair chance. Employees are upset because they say SRNS denied all religious exemptions without evaluating the requests.

Which means on Thursday, possibly hundreds will be turning in their badge.

“I’ve not been vaccinated previously, so this is nothing new for me,” said Tim Carnes.

Carnes has worked with Savannah River Nuclear Solutions for nearly 10 years. He even worked his way up to a team leader.

But on Friday, “We’ll be turning in our access badges, our equipment if we have any, they will be removing our rights to access the site,” he said.

The company announced the mandate Sept. 2. At that time, SRS had 11 on-site team members hospitalized within the last two months and four workers die from COVID. On Oct. 11, several employees tell us, their requests for a religious exemption were denied.

“My understanding is there are going to be hundreds of employees that will be separating. I believe that’s a loss for the company I believe it’s a loss for the community. It’s a catastrophic impact to each individual family,” said Carnes.

In the denial letter, SRNS says they did not evaluate the sincerity of the request. And frequent testing would impose an “Undue burden on the company.”

READ THE LETTER:

Jim Carnes religious exemption denial email
Jim Carnes religious exemption denial email(WRDW)

As a remote employee, Carnes was hoping to keep working from home.

“We have shown as employees that we can telework. We can keep the workplace safe,” he said.

But SRNS hasn’t budged, sending another email saying the mandate is permanent and the next step is termination.

“I believe they’ve overreached and I would really love to see them reconsider that,” Carnes said.

We heard back from SRNS. They won’t tell us how many employees they expect to let go but say it’s constantly changing and lower than what we’ve heard, which is hundreds.

In a statement, they say in part, “Vaccines provide us with the most effective tool to help ensure a safe work environment.”

They go on to say unvaccinated employees will lose site access after this Friday but they will have the opportunity to return to work if they get fully vaccinated by Nov. 30.

We asked a constitutional rights attorney about the legality of the decision to deny religious exemptions. He says in this case, SRNS decided the risk to the workplace outweighs giving someone a religious exemption, and the employer is allowed to make that decision.

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