On Friday, attorneys for over 500 current and former healthcare workers at a Midwest healthcare system announced that they had settled “the nation’s first classwide lawsuit” for employees alleging that they were unlawfully discriminated against and denied religious exemptions from a COVID shot mandate.
You can view a copy of the proposed settlement here, which remains subject to court approval.
So, how did we get from refusing to take a jab to a $10M settlement?
According to the Complaint, which the plaintiffs filed last October, all of the plaintiffs have sincerely held religious beliefs against the COVID-19 vaccines because they were either developed from, or tested with, aborted fetal cell lines, or for other religious reasons that they explained to their employer. The employer allegedly responded by providing them with two options:
- receive a COVID-19 vaccination in direct violation of their conscience and sincerely held religious beliefs, or
- lose their jobs
Allegedly, the employer claimed that it would suffer an “undue hardship” if it allowed the plaintiffs to continue in their current positions. Supposedly, the employer considered the possibility of offering some plaintiffs remote work but never extended such offers.
In November, the court entered a temporary restraining order to prevent the employer from placing the lead plaintiffs on “unpaid leave, terminating their employment or unilaterally changing their compensations, benefits, terms or conditions (except for changes that affect employees generally) on the basis of their COVID-19 vaccination status or their compliance or non-compliance with Defendant’s COVID-19 vaccination policy.” However, the defendant could place the plaintiffs on paid leave pending the action. Later in November, the court lifted the TRO and denied a preliminary injunction because the plaintiffs could not establish irreparable harm.
Then, in July, the parties agreed to settle the case.
The EEOC notes in its COVID-19 resource document that, under Title VII, “an employer should thoroughly consider all possible reasonable accommodations, including telework and reassignment.” The EEOC guidance includes suggestions about types of reasonable accommodations for unvaccinated employees.
As part of the settlement, in which the employer admits no liability, it will revise its religious accommodation policy such that no position within the organization is off limits to unvaccinated employees with approved religious exemptions. In addition, employees terminated because of their religious refusal of the COVID shots will be eligible for rehire if they apply within 90 days of final settlement approval by the court and will retain their previous seniority level.
The company will also pay $10,337,500. Each plaintiff will receive anywhere from about $3,000 to $25,000 each, while the lawyers will pocket $2,061,500.