KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — Six employees at Oak Ridge National Laboratory have filed a class-action against UT-Battelle, the managing contractor of the laboratory, claiming discrimination against those who requested religious or medical accommodation from the COVID-19 vaccine mandate.

The lawsuit alleges that UT-Battelle violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and Americans with Disabilities Act by failing to provide reasonable accommodations for employees who requested religious or medical accommodations for the COVID-19 vaccination mandate for large employers and retaliating against employees who engaged in protected activity when they made the requests.

The plaintiffs claim they were informed by management that the reasonable accommodation for their religious exemption requests would be indefinite unpaid leave, which effectively equated to termination. Requests from two plaintiffs who filed medical accommodations from the vaccine mandate were either left pending or denied, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit alleges UT-Battelle’s actions left plaintiffs with the ‘impossible’ choice of either taking the vaccine by Oct. 15 at the expense of their beliefs or lose their livelihoods. It also claims the UT-Battelle’s mandate did not offer periodic testing as an alternative to vaccination in contrast with the Department of Labor’s announcement.

After the onset of the pandemic, UT-Battelle required many employees to receive a weekly COVID-19 test, even requiring some to do so on weeks they worked entirely from home, court documents said. Precautions such as mask-wearing and social distancing were also implemented.

ORNL Director Thomas Zacharia emailed staff on Aug. 26 announcing that the lab will require all employees to receive a COVID-19 vaccine, according to the lawsuit.

Those seeking an exemption were required to submit an accommodation request by Sept. 15. Employees not approved for accommodation were required to be vaccinated on site at ORNL or email a copy of their vaccination record to UT-Battelle if vaccinated offsite.

The plaintiffs say the status of some of the requests went from ‘pending’ to ‘declined’ on Sept. 16, one day after the deadline for accommodation requests. They also claim the page of the HR system which allowed employees to view their request status was removed the same day.

Before UT-Battelle began conducting interviews with employees who made exemption requests, the lawsuit claims Zacharia emailed staff that precautions like face masks and testing may not adequately protect staff and those who are granted a religious exemption should be prepared to on unpaid leave beginning Oct. 15, “potentially until the end of the pandemic.”

The lawsuit states UT-Batelle conducting interviews with seeking exemptions on Sept. 20 & 21, claiming the probing questions asked during the interviews were intended to dissuade employees from seeking religious accommodations.

It also alleges that all remaining employee interviews were canceled on Sept. 22. and ORNL HR Director sent an email later that day to all employees who requested an accommodation saying that the only accommodation to the request would be indefinite unpaid leave.

Plaintiffs said UT-Batelle began security clearance exit debriefing for ‘accommodated’ employees on Oct. 11 and required those employees to submit a form electing to use all their remaining vacation days immediately or to begin unpaid leave on Oct. 16. These employees were also asked to submit their work badges on Oct. 15.

“UT-Battelle’s discriminatory and retaliatory actions will cause Plaintiffs various harms, including the substantial loss of income, inability to afford necessary medical care, loss of housing, loss of professional advancement opportunities, and other similar personal and professional harms.”

Lawsuit excerpt

The six plaintiffs aim to represent all UT-Battelle employees who requested or will request accommodations from the vaccine mandate through the class action. The lawsuit states they expect the class to exceed 150 employees.

“The health and safety of our staff has been UT-Battelle’s priority throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Full vaccination of staff reflects our obligation to operate the Lab as safely as possible and a commitment to our community’s well-being.”

UT-Battelle statement in response to the lawsuit

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