On June 9, 2022, Tyson Foods and its subsidiary, The Hillshire Brands Company, were sued over alleged employment discrimination. The lawsuit is by a former employee, Redina Hayslett, who claims she was terminated after refusing the COVID-19 vaccine on religious grounds.

Why it Matters:

We previously predicted companies should prepare for a litigation trend over religious discrimination claims involving Covid-19 vaccine requirements. See The Next (Litigation) Pandemic – Religious Discrimination Claims. This recent suit against Tyson Foods bolsters our conclusion.

It also highlights an added wrinkle for employers: Tennessee elected to pass legislation punishing employers who enforced certain workplace policies involving Covid-19 vaccine requirements. Other states have taken similar steps to interject governmental oversight of private sector HR; Michigan thankfully is not one of those states.

But for companies with operations where state legislators are now looking over their employment policies like Tennessee, avoiding employee Covid-19-related lawsuits is going to be an expensive challenge.

Going Deeper:

In August 2021, Tyson Foods and its subsidiary, The Hillshire Brands Company, made it a condition of continuing employment that all U.S. based Tyson employees would have to be vaccinated against COVID-19. Tyson also required employees to provide proof of vaccination, unless an employee had a documented and approved reasonable accommodations for a disability or sincerely held religious beliefs, practices, or observances.

Plaintiff submitted a religious accommodation request stating that her belief in the power of prayer, faith in Christ, religious freedom, and First Amendment rights prohibit her from receiving a vaccination for COVID-19.

Tyson responded to Plaintiff’s request for religious accommodation with a determination that the only accommodation Defendants could give Plaintiff was an unpaid leave of absence from work for a period of up to one year. Plaintiff eventually responded by suing Tyson and its subsidiary.

Extending Government Oversight to HR:  

Tennessee passed a law in November 2021 prohibiting private businesses and other entities from compelling or otherwise taking “adverse action” against a person relative to providing proof of having received a COVID-19 vaccination if the person objects to being vaccinated “for any reason.”  Thus, under the Tennessee law, it is illegal for employers like Tyson, to take adverse action against a person based on their vaccination status.

Further, Tennessee politicians removed any qualifying or limiting language for what objections must accept, e.g., objections for religious or medical reasons. This means employees with any sort of objection, whether unfounded or frivolous are insulated from discipline. And this sort of broad prohibition in Tennessee and other like-minded states will no doubt fuel employee vaccine-related lawsuits against employers.

Use this link to contact Michigan attorney Jason Shinn if you have questions about this article or complying with Michigan or federal employment laws. Since 2001, Mr. Shinn has represented companies and individuals about the issues discussed above and other employment matters under federal and Michigan employment laws. In 2020, Mr. Shinn work was consumed with Covid-19 legal issues, including helping clients understand their rights, vaccine and shut-down orders, and litigating coronavirus issues.