Federal Agency Sues Businesses for Firing Workers Over COVID Vaccine Refusal

Zachary Stieber
By Zachary Stieber
October 4, 2023Vaccines
Federal Agency Sues Businesses for Firing Workers Over COVID Vaccine Refusal
Syringes with a COVID-19 vaccine in Bidderford, Maine, on April 26, 2021. (Joseph Prezioso/AFP via Getty Images)

A federal agency has sued two businesses for firing workers who sought religious exemptions to COVID-19 vaccine mandates.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in lawsuits said United Healthcare Services and Hank’s Furniture violated federal law when denying the exemption requests and firing the workers.

United Healthcare and Hank’s Furniture denied the exemption requests without explanation and later fired two workers who sought them, according to the suits.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 bars discrimination over religion and requires businesses to accommodate a worker’s religious practice unless doing so would cause “undue hardship.”

“Once an employer is on notice that an employee’s sincerely held religious belief, practice, or observance prevents the employee from getting a COVID-19 vaccine, the employer must provide a reasonable accommodation unless it would pose an undue hardship,” said Debra Lawrence, a regional attorney for the EEOC, said in a statement. “Neither healthcare providers nor COVID-19 vaccination requirements are excepted from Title VII’s protections against religious discrimination.”

Marsha Rucker, another EEOC attorney, said the suit against Hank’s Furniture “should remind employers they must communicate with employees requesting accommodation for religious beliefs and try to accommodate those beliefs whenever reasonably possible.”

She pointed to a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that found in favor of a U.S. Postal Service mail carrier who sued after the service refused to accommodate his request not to work on Sundays.

Mat Staver of Liberty Counsel, a law firm that brings similar cases, said in a statement that the timing of the cases shows that with the ruling, “there is now a higher bar for employers to meet when denying a religious accommodation.”

He added, “People should not have to choose between their faith and their job.”

The EEOC said in 2021 businesses could impose COVID-19 vaccine mandates but would need to provide religious and medical accomodations.

United Healthcare, based in Ohio, told The Epoch Times in an email it will “vigorously defend ourselves” against the suit.

“Among other things, the EEOC’s contention that the employee in question was a remote worker with no in-person job responsibilities is inaccurate. We continue to respect individual beliefs, while working to ensure the health, well-being and safety of our colleagues and those we are privileged to serve,” the company said.

Hank’s Furniture, based in Arkansas, did not have lawyers listed on the court docket and could not otherwise be reached.

Remote Worker Fired

Amanda Stone started working for United in 2014. She was promoted in 2016 to a supervisory position. She was transitioned to work full-time from home in 2018 due to budget cuts. Since then, Ms. Stone’s job has not involved any face-to-face duties or a need to enter United facilities, according to one of the suits.

Along with many other U.S. companies, United Healthcare in October 2021 announced a COVID-19 vaccine mandate. The vaccination requirement was purportedly only for workers who needed to enter the company’s facilities or meet face-to-face with customers, suppliers, or members. United specified that it did not apply to people who worked remotely.

Ms. Stone, though, received word that she needed to get a shot, the suit said.

Ms. Stone is a Christian who said she has sincerely held religious beliefs, including an opposition to abortion that prevents her from receiving a COVID-19 vaccine. The shots were developed with or tested using cell lines derived from aborted fetuses.

Ms. Stone submitted a religious exemption request on Oct. 6, 2021, outlining her objections to vaccination. United issued a denial on Oct. 26, 2021.

Ms. Stone asked her boss how to appeal the decision. She was told she could not appeal but could try again.

Ms. Stone did so. She was denied a second time. For neither denial was Ms. Stone told why she was denied.

United told Ms. Stone on Nov. 30, 2021, that she was being placed on leave for not complying with the mandate. United said if she did not receive a vaccine, she might be terminated. United fired her on Jan. 2, 2022.

The U.S. court in southern Ohio was asked to block United from discriminating against people on the basis of their religion, ordering United to give Ms. Stone backpay with interest, front pay, or reinstatement, and provide compensation for losses resulting in its discrimination.

Company Said It Would Never Grant an Exemption

Kaitlyn O’Neal started working for Hank’s Furniture in 2020. She was promoted in 2021 to be an assistant manager.

Ms. O’Neal was informed by the company in July 2021 that it planned to encourage employees to receive a COVID-19 vaccine, according to the other suit. The company wanted all managers to immediately receive a shot.

Ms. O’Neal said she did not plan on receiving a COVID-19 vaccine.

Several weeks later, Ms. O’Neal said she had sincerely held religious beliefs that would prevent her from getting vaccinated. She asked for a religious exemption.

Hank’s Furniture sent her online articles in an attempt to change her mind, according to the suit. Contacted by the company, which asked whether she had changed her mind, Ms. O’Neal said she had not.

Ms. O’Neal asked how to submit a written request for a religious exemption, but the company did not respond.

When Ms. O’Neal complained, her manager and supervisor said Hank’s Furniture did not care why she would not receive a COVID-19 vaccine and that the company would never grant an exemption, the EEOC said.

On Aug. 20, 2021, Hank’s Furniture announced that its policy of encouragement had turned into a vaccine mandate. Workers who did not receive a vaccine by Oct. 31, 2021, would be fired.

Ms. O’Neal submitted a written request for an accommodation, which was ignored by the company.

After Ms. O’Neal followed up, the company said her request was “severely lacking” and denied it. Ms. O’Neal asked for help in filing a proper request, but the company refused. Hank’s Furniture fired her on Oct. 31, 2021, over her refusal to receive a vaccine.

The EEOC asked the U.S. court in northern Florida to award Ms. O’Neal backpay with interest and order Hank’s Furniture to pay front pay or reinstatement, compensation for losses, and damages. The company should also be blocked from discriminating against workers on the basis of religion, the agency said.

From The Epoch Times

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