Over 50 former employees at the Austal plant in Mobile have filed a federal lawsuit claiming the company violated their civil rights after they sought religious and medical exemptions for the COVID-19 vaccine.
Austal USA is a ship manufacturer headquartered in Mobile, which contracts with the federal government.
The plaintiffs claim to have been fired by Austal USA after the company denied their religious and medical exemptions.
They also claim to have been victims of “unlawful discrimination, harassment, and retaliation” and that Austal USA “subjected them to a hostile work environment and wrongful termination based on their sincerely held religious beliefs and/or medical capabilities.”
They further claim that Austal USA “engaged in an unfounded pattern and practice of religious and disability discrimination.”
According to the suit, “over 200 Austal employees who had not yet taken one of the experimental vaccines, were rounded up on Oct. 22, 2021, put in a room, told to put their phones away and to not record, at which point they were told, in part, that ‘all of your exemption requests have been denied and that they needed to receive one of the vaccines by the date of Oct. 27 or they would be terminated.”
The suit claims when one of the employees asked an Austal spokesman if they would receive their yearly bonus, they were told, “If you don’t get the vaccination by Oct. 27 and you are obstinate or difficult, then you won’t get your bonus.” Further, the spokesman is accused of saying, “if you’re a jerk or if you hurt this family, I’m taking it away from you.”
An email later sent to all Austal employees contradicted the claim that their bonuses would be affected.
An Austal representative could not immediately be reached for comment, but according to media reports the company has maintained that it was complying with a federal mandate that defense contractors ensure that workers were vaccinated. In a response to a complaint filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Austal indicated it had granted 15 medical exemptions and 25 temporary medical exemptions.
The company reportedly terminated the rest.
“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 suit claims that Austal USA is in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Alabama passed legislation in November of 2021, attempting to offer protection for Alabamians against vaccine mandates.
Senate Bill 9 (SB9), sponsored by State Sen. Chris Elliott (R-Fairhope), set state standards for religious and medical exemptions from vaccine mandates, even federal employees.
SB9 stated that an employer who has denied an employee’s exemption request “may not terminate the employee on the basis of failing to receive a vaccination for seven calendar days after the denial or if an appeal was made, until the administrative law judge or the court issues a final ruling in the employer’s favor.”
Under SB9, the employer must compensate an employee whose request has been denied during the seven days after the denial, and during any appeals process.
The lawsuit further states that Austal lifted all vaccine mandate requirements on March 31, 2022, yet there seems to have been no attempt on Austal's part to rehire the fired employees who are plaintiffs in the lawsuit.
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