RICHLAND — About 285 Hanford nuclear reservation workers have filed a lawsuit in federal court, asking that a COVID-19 vaccine mandate be immediately overturned.
Because of requirements that about 11,000 Hanford workers be vaccinated or have an exemption approved, the lawsuit claims the Hanford site will not have enough workers, including Hanford guards, to do the minimum work needed to keep the site safe and secure.
Nearly a third of the Hanford workers named as plaintiffs in the lawsuit are with the Hanford Patrol, including officers, a supervisor, a K-9 handler and an instructor.
The Department of Energy has not made the size of its Hanford Patrol workforce public, considering it a security matter.
Other Hanford workers who signed up as plaintiffs had a broad range of jobs and included nuclear operators, engineers, managers, laborers, clerks, auditors, Teamsters and industrial hygiene and radiological control technicians.
The Hanford plaintiffs include employees of DOE, the major contractors at Hanford and subcontractors.
Among the plaintiffs is a newly elected Pasco school board member, Stephen Simmons, who works as a preventive maintenance planner at the Hanford vitrification plant.
Also, Pasco Councilman Pete Serrano is involved. He is the director and lead attorney for the Silent Majority Foundation based in Pasco, which organized the lawsuit, and is one of the attorneys filing the suit.
Nathan Arnold of Arnold & Jacobowitz of Seattle also is listed as an attorney.
The lawsuit also includes about 10 additional plaintiffs who are employed at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, a Department of Energy research lab based in Richland. PNNL has about 5,300 employees.
Defendants named in the lawsuit include President Biden, DOE Hanford manager Brian Vance and the leadership of Hanford and PNNL contractors.
Most of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit said they had been granted religious or medical exemptions but that they had been provided no accommodations to keep them working.
A firefighter and emergency medical technician said he initially had been allowed to wear a mask and get tested as an accommodation to his religious exemption, but that had been rescinded.
A few plaintiffs said they had been granted temporary accommodations, such as 60 days of teleworking.
A few others said they were allowed the accommodation of providing negative COVID-19 test results, but weekly testing was unacceptable to at least one of the plaintiffs given that accommodation.
Plaintiffs Luis and Angela Ojeda, of Ojeda Business Ventures, said that Central Plateau Cleanup Co. had threatened to terminate their company’s subcontract if it fails to implement a COVID-19 vaccine mandate.
Lawsuit cites Constitution
The lawsuit filed Tuesday asks that U.S. Judge Thomas Rice block workers from being fired due to requirements that they be fully vaccinated or receive a religious or medical exemption.
If the case proceeds to trial, rather than a judge making an immediate ruling, it wants damages paid, including for job losses.
It also wants a judge to declare the vaccine mandates unconstitutional and an infringement on employees’ free exercise of religion.
The lawsuit argues that people who have had COVID-19 have natural immunity and should not be required to be vaccinated.
However, the Centers for Disease Control say that among people who have had COVID-19, those who do not get vaccinated are twice as likely to get it again as people who are vaccinated.
Vaccine mandates violate multiple clauses of the U.S. Constitution, the lawsuit claims.
They also violate the Americans with Disabilities Act because some people have medical conditions that their doctors say mean they should not be vaccinated.
COVID vaccine deadlines
Hanford and PNNL workers face various deadlines for providing proof that they are fully vaccinated or have an approved exemption.
Battelle, the contractor for PNNL, set a deadline of Monday, Nov. 15.
It reported that 94% of PNNL employees were partially or fully vaccinated against COVID by the deadline and 311 employees had submitted a medical or religious exemption. About 84% of those approved for a review of temporary accommodations.
To date 31 employees have resigned, retired or been fired due to the vaccine requirement at PNNL.
DOE officials have refused to say how many of their federal employees or their contractors’ employees are vaccinated.
DOE employees at Hanford and other federal employees across the nation face a Nov. 22 deadline to be vaccinated or have an approved exemption, unless it is extended.
Hanford employees working for contractor or subcontractor employees had a Dec. 8 deadline, but that has been extended to January.
Hanford officials are expected to provide employees more information soon on the new deadline.
The Hanford nuclear reservation, adjoining the Tri-Cities in Eastern Washington, produced plutonium for the nation’s nuclear weapons program from World War II through the Cold War.
Now taxpayers spend about $2.5 billion annually on environmental cleanup of the 580-square-mile site, which has 56 million gallons of stored radioactive waste and radioactively and chemically contaminated buildings, soil and groundwater.