53 fired Austal workers file suit over COVID-19 vaccine mandate
MOBILE, Ala. (WALA) - Using Independence Day as a symbolic backdrop, a lawyer on Monday electronically filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of 53 former Austal workers challenging the company’s now-rescinded COVID-19 vaccine mandate.
The suit, which accused Austal USA of violating the employees’ rights under the Civil Rights Act or the Americans with Disabilities Act, seeks damages for lost pay and punitive damages. Attorney Brian Dasinger suggested $1 million for each worker would be fair.
“We’ve decided to file on July 4th because our founders fought for independence against tyranny and declared independence on this day,” he said. “Our clients are fighting against a different kinds of tyranny, a tyranny against bodily autonomy.”
Dasinger said he represents seven additional former Austal employees who will be filing suit in Florida and Mississippi.
An Austal representative could not immediately be reached for comment on the holiday. But the company has maintained that it was complying with a federal mandate that defense contractors endure their workers were vaccinated against the potentially deadly disease. In a response to a complained filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Austal indicated it had granted 15 medical exemptions and 25 temporary medical exemptions.
The company terminated the rest, including almost 160 who submitted religious exemptions.
“Because these employees did not provide proof of vaccination as required by Austal in its efforts to comply with the federal mandate, the decision to separate them was based on a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason which the Charging Party cannot demonstrate was pretextual,” the company wrote in response to one of the EEOC complaints.
The EEOC ultimately issued letters allowing the plaintiffs in the lawsuit to pursue action in federal court.
In at least one instance, Austal told the EEOC that one of the employees who filed a complaint never had submitted a religious exemption. In the others, according to a company filing, Austal did not challenge the sincerity of their beliefs. Instead, the company wrote, it determined that it was impractical to isolate the employees for co-workers and that implementing a biweekly testing program would cost more than $1 million a year.
“Ultimately, in consideration of such factors, Austal determined that a bi-weekly testing program of approximately 160 employees would be a significant, undue hardship on the company and as such, Austal was faced with the difficult reality of having to deny all religious exemption requests from the vaccination mandate,” the company wrote in the EEOC response.
The Biden administration moved in September last year to require defense contractors to vaccinate their workers, although a federal judge in Georgia blocked the order from taking effect in December. Prior to that, though, Austal followed through with implementation of the federal mandate, requiring employees to get a first shot of the Moderna or Pfizer vaccine by Oct. 27 and second doses by Nov. 24.
Dasinger said his clients have suffered immensely. Some were forced to sell their homes, he said. Others took lower-paying jobs, he added.
Austal lifted its vaccine mandate in March, but Dasinger said it was too late for his clients. He said the company offered to rehired some of them, but for lesser positions.
“My religious belief is something that I hold very, very seriously. … I feel like my rights were violated by the denial, the religious exemption that I submitted,” said west Mobile resident Melissa Daidone, who had worked as a buyer, acquiring parts for ship construction.
The civil complaint quotes a company spokesman talking to about 200 people who had not yet gotten the vaccine by Oct. 22. The suit contends that when one employee asked if workers still would get their bonuses if they chose termination over vaccination, a company spokesman said, “If you don’t’ get the vaccination by Oct. 27th and you are obstinate or difficult, then you won’t get your bonus.”
The Austal representative added, “If you’re a jerk or if you hurt this family, I’m taking it away from you.”
The lawsuit also accuses Austal of disparaging employees who sought religious exemptions.
“I was a little angry,” said Glenn Lund, who worked more than 10 years in “whip control” and now is retired. “I’m not against the vaccines at all. I feel like if you need to take one, take it. I, myself, on my religious aspects, don’t want to put that in my system.”
Updated at 1:42 p.m. with comments from two of the plaintiffs and additional explanation of Austal’s position. Updated at 1:50 p.m. to correct an error in the headline regarding the number of employees named in the lawsuit.
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