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ORNL employees sue over unpaid leave policy after refusing vaccinations due to religious or medical exceptions

UT-Battelle tried offering unpaid leave to those with religious or medical exemptions who chose not to get the COVID-19 vaccine after a federal mandate.

OAK RIDGE, Tenn. — Some employees at Oak Ridge National Laboratories are suing the operator of the lab in a class-action lawsuit over its policies on vaccine accommodations.

Around 150 employees were granted religious or medical exceptions. UT-Battelle, the company that manages ORNL offered "an indefinite period of unpaid leave” as its accommodation for those who have religious and medical reasons not to get the vaccine.

A federal court judge temporarily blocked the company from putting these employees on unpaid leave. The decision will be re-evaluated at the end of the week.

"I'm passionate about my sincerely held religious beliefs. I'm also passionate about keeping my job," said Jordan Lefebvre, an employee of Oak Ridge National Lab for nearly 13 years and who is suing UT-Battelle alongside his brother.

Oak Ridge National Laboratories are required to comply with an executive order issued by President Joe Biden in September which required COVID-19 vaccines for all federal contractors.

Jordan and Robert were granted religious exceptions to the mandate but said they felt the policy of being placed on unpaid leave violated the Americans with Disabilities Act and Title VII laws.

According to Oak Ridge National Lab Spokesperson Morgan McCorkle, around 150 employees with approved religious or medical exemptions were asked to turn in their badges and computers.

They said they could take vacation days or immediately go on unpaid leave. Once these employees had used all their vacation days, they would have been put on unpaid leave for an undetermined amount of time.

Jordan said that he felt like he was being terminated when he handed in his keys and clearances. Without having access to email, he said that he felt like he lost his job.

A federal court judge issued a temporary restraining order blocking UT-Battelle from placing employees on indefinite unpaid leave or firing them after they receive a religious or medical accommodation and chose not to get the COVID-19 vaccine.

Robert Lefebvre said that he felt being placed on unpaid leave for an uncertain amount of time was not accommodating; he said there was no promise of when employees could return to work.

"This isn't just a job. This is part of who we are. Part of the community that we are in," Robert said. "I think the lab can do a lot to protect its employees from COVID-19 without effectively firing those of us who have religious exemptions or medical exemptions."

The next hearing about the trial is scheduled for October 26. The judge wrote that he would decide by October 29 whether to let the order expire or keep it while the case plays out.

UT-Battelle said it will continue to abide by the temporary restraining order until it expires on Friday or the judge issues a new ruling.

RELATED: Judge issues temporary restraining order after ORNL employees file lawsuit over COVID-19 vaccine mandate