How many SRS workers could lose jobs as shot deadline nears?

Published: Oct. 13, 2021 at 11:20 PM EDT
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AIKEN, S.C. (WRDW/WAGT) - Hundreds of Savannah River Site employees could lose their job Thursday as a mandatory COVID-19 vaccine deadline looms large.

Some employees who normally have religious exemptions for shots are speaking out as they’re about to lose their jobs.

We’re taking a closer look at what mandates mean.

“Reasonable accommodation” – those two words are the key to why the already limited exemptions for the COVID vaccine could be denied.

Managers at SRS — with a local workforce of 11,000 people — tell employees like Tim Carnes that the only reasonable accommodation would be too much of a burden.

“I was very surprised because you know the Title 7 says that reasonable accommodations will be made for employees to exercise their religious conscience,” said Carnes.

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

Carnes has worked with Savannah River Nuclear Solutions, management contractor at SRS, 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 it did not evaluate the sincerity of the request. And frequent testing would impose an “undue burden on the company.”

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

Savannah River Nuclear Solutions said the accommodation it would have to make is frequent testing. Managers say with the number and composition of employees who have requested a religious accommodation, it would imposes an undue burden.

“That was very surprising to me because we have been working for 18 months, successfully, as telework. We’ve been offering no risk to the company, or can any employee because we’ve had no personal exposure,” Carnes said.

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

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.

But whether they’ve been working from home or not, Executive Order 14043 explains all employees regardless of where they are working must be fully vaccinated by November. SRNS set its deadline on the 30th.

“I don’t have anything against the company. This is a policy problem. This is an overreach by people, I’m sure that meant well. But I don’t believe they’ve really considered the ramifications,” Carnes said.

Managers say there is no plan to drop the vaccination requirement and they expect to lose some employees. But they hope those unvaccinated will decide to get one in time to keep their jobs.

We reached out to SRS for the current vaccination rate, number of employees who asked for exemptions, and how many they think they’ll be losing. We’ll let you know when we find out more. But if 10 percent of their employees are not vaccinated, 1,250 will lose their jobs. Five percent — 560 employees gone. So there may be hundreds of people without jobs at SRS by the end of this week.

South Carolina U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson released a comment on the Savannah River Site COVID vaccine mandate.

Wilson says although he is against the mandate, “as a private entity, they have the legal right to create the guidelines for employment within their company.”

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