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Unvaccinated SRS workers go to court in a battle to keep jobs

Published: Oct. 14, 2021 at 3:42 PM EDT
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AIKEN, S.C. (WRDW/WAGT) - After facing a mandate to get vaccinated against COVID-19 or risk losing their jobs, dozens of Savannah River Site employees have filed a lawsuit.

Seventy-nine employees filed a 46-page lawsuit in Aiken County against Savannah River Nuclear Solutions, a management and operations contractor of the U.S. Department of Energy nuclear complex. SRNS has a workforce of about 5,500 people, although SRS as a whole employs 11,000.

The plaintiffs cited issues with the company at the beginning of the pandemic, discussed the virus spreading, the call for employer mandates, and issues with the COVID vaccines, specifically the Johnson and Johnson vaccine.

The plaintiffs argued that requiring vaccination is “beyond its legal bounds” and that “the Plaintiffs would be irreparably harmed, losing their livelihood, their salaries including their source of income, and in some cases their health benefits, if the court does not take immediate action to step in and block the Defendant’s implementation of the illegal vaccine mandate.”

Those employees also said they want the court to ban SRS from firing people if they don’t have the vaccine, and reinstate anyone they previously fired for not getting it.

READ THE LAWSUIT:

This latest development comes as hundreds of employees risked losing their jobs Thursday ahead of the required vaccination deadline. Some employees who normally have religious exemptions for shots are also speaking about the risk of losing their jobs this week.

The words “reasonable accommodation” are the key to why the already limited exemptions for the COVID vaccine could be denied.

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

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 vaccination mandate back on September 2. At that time, SRS had 11 on-site team members hospitalized within the last two months, and four workers die from COVID.

On October 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,” Carnes said.

In the denial letter for religious exemptions, SRS 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)

“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, he was hoping to keep working from home. But SRNS hasn’t budged, sending another email saying the mandate is permanent and the next step would be termination.

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

We reached out to SRS about their vaccine mandate. The company replied in a statement, saying “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 Friday, but they will have the opportunity to return to work if they get fully vaccinated by November 30.

We asked a constitutional rights attorney about the legality of the decision to deny religious exemptions. The attorney says in this case, SRS 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, Federal Executive Order 14043, issued by the Biden Administration, explains all employees, regardless of where they are working, must be fully vaccinated by November.

“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.

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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