Judge Temporarily Bars US Lab From Placing Unvaccinated Workers on Unpaid Leave

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A federal judge on Friday temporarily blocked a U.S. Department of Energy laboratory’s contracted operator in Tennessee from terminating or placing on unpaid leave its workers who are exempted from a COVID-19 vaccine mandate.

Days after six employees filed a lawsuit against the University of Tennessee-Battelle (UT-Battelle), District Judge Charles Atchley in Knoxville issued a temporary restraining order limiting the ability for the managing contractor for Oak Ridge National Laboratory from placing employees on indefinite unpaid leave or firing them after they receive a religious or medical exemption to the COVID-19 vaccine.

Though not-for-profit company UT-Battelle allows for employees to submit requests for exemptions under the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Americans with Disabilities Act, it later told about 140 employees they will be put on unpaid leave as of Oct. 15, despite their approval for exemption.

UT-Battelle’s actions left workers with the “impossible choice of either taking the COVID-19 vaccine, at the expense of their religious beliefs and their health, or losing their livelihoods. In doing so, UT-Battelle has violated Title VII and the ADA by failing to engage in the interactive process and provide reasonable accommodations, and also by retaliating against employees who engaged in protected activity,” the lawsuit states.

The temporary restraining order is effective through Oct. 29. Atchley wrote that he will decide then on whether to let it expire or continue while the case is ongoing. He added that he issued the order until a full hearing can be held.

The judge rejected the employees’ other motions to attempt to halt the vaccine mandate for any staffer in the process of requesting an exemption to the requirement while their requests are being considered.

Atchley wrote that “preventing their [employees’] placement on unpaid leave for a matter of two weeks simply will not harm” the organization, while the unpaid leave presents a “functional loss of employment” and other damages for the employees at the laboratory.

By Isabel van Brugen

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