By Erica Thomas, Managing Editor
An agency of the Alabama Department of Commerce assisting a north Alabama rocket manufacturing plant with hiring for an expansion said it will pull out of the job after over 100 employees faced either following the Biden administration’s proposed COVID-19 vaccine mandate or losing their jobs.
United Launch Alliance (ULA) in Decatur has nearly 700 employees. A worker that has been at the plant for over 21 years told Phil Williams of Rightside Radio that leadership at ULA warned approximately 185 unvaccinated employees they must provide a vaccination letter by Oct. 29, or they will be terminated on Oct. 30.
A representative from United Launch Alliance sent WAFF in Huntsville a statement saying they are monitoring federal COVID-19 policies daily.
“We have received multiple contract modifications in the last few weeks that flow firm requirements to the company from our U.S. government customer that require all ULA employees to become vaccinated,” the company said. “The COVID-19 pandemic has affected virtually every facet of life over the past 18 months. COVID-19 also is a challenge for our business, a business that is critical to national security and civil space endeavors. ULA decided to require vaccinations to ensure the health and safety of our employees and to align with our U.S. government customer and industry direction. This places ULA in a much better position to meet the nation’s needs and our manifest commitments while protecting the health of everyone at our facilities.”
The worker, who only identified himself as “William,” said AIDT, a state agency that provides customized technical training programs that are offered at no cost to employers or trainees, responded to the job site with trailers on Monday, Oct. 25, to train replacements for any workers who would be fired or would quit because of the mandate.
However, Jacqueline Allen, the Assistant Director of Communications and External Affairs for AIDT, said the agency was already at ULA and that AIDT could make a change soon.
“Our work with ULA began over a month ago with their [ULA’s] request for assistance in preparing for their impending expansion,” Allen said. “In light of current circumstances, we are suspending services until we get further clarification.”
William said that just 10 months ago, ULA told employees they were essential workers and needed them to come to work despite their vaccination status. William said a lot has changed since then.
“Today, they’ve got people getting walked off because they didn’t have a mask,” said William.
Hunter Creger, who has worked as a contractor with ULA for the last two years, told WAFF in Huntsville that his religious exemption as a Catholic was denied.
"I’m sick and tired of being walked on,” Creger told the station. "I’m an American, my family has fought for this country. It feels like a birth right has been taken from me. I’ve put in a lot of really hard work at this company and I really enjoy what I do. This is my dream job, and I’m being fired over something that has nothing to do with my merit.”
The federal contractors and employees that work for ULA protesting were hoping the executive order by Gov. Kay Ivey would make a difference. The order goes against federal mandates, calling them an “outrageous overreach.”
“Alabamians – and Americans alike – should and must have the choice to roll up their sleeves to get this shot and certainly not (be) forced by government,” Ivey said in a statement provided with the executive order. “While President Biden laughs at the idea of protecting your freedoms, I will continue fighting for Alabama businesses and their employees.”
The order states that all agencies, departments, boards, commissions or other state agencies will not impose penalties for businesses that are not in compliance with the federally imposed vaccine requirement.
Phil Williams, a former Alabama Senator, called what happened at ULA “maddening” and “heartbreaking” to hear William’s story.
The Biden administration stands firm on the proposal for mandates, saying the only way to control the pandemic is to get people vaccinated. White House officials said risks from the vaccine outweigh risks of COVID-19. All members of the military and military contractors have been ordered to get the COVID-19 vaccine. A provision in the proposed mandate allows workers to refuse the vaccine due to medical, disability or religious exemptions, but at least one worker at ULA told WAFF his religious exemption was refused. Although Biden’s proposal is not yet in place, many businesses across the nation have started the process of notifying employees that they will need to be fully vaccinated in order to continue working.
According to its website, AIDT was “established to build a healthy state economy by recruiting and training a skilled workforce to attract new industries to the state and to expand existing industries.”
ULA is responsible for Atlas and Delta rocket families and has achieved more than 145 consecutive launches since 2006. The company recently introduced the new Vulcan rocket family. The Decatur plant is responsible for booster fabrication and its final assembly and for the centaur tank fabrication and its final assembly.
Although William faces the end of his long career at ULA, he said he is thankful he will be able to retire, but his thoughts are with those who do not have that option.