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170 Michigan Workers Sue Over Vaccine Mandate Termination

Blue Cross Blue Shield terminated 250 employees earlier this month for not complying with the company’s vaccination deadline. But some employees felt they were wrongfully fired after being denied a religious exemption.

(TNS) — Twenty-two years into her career Alicia Kowalczyk saw Blue Cross Blue Shield as her last stop before retirement. She loved her job, her coworkers, and the stability she provided her family. But when the company’s vaccine policy conflicted with her beliefs of 49 years, she had to choose which piece of her identity to sacrifice.

“I’m supposed to be a safety net for [my kids,]” she said. “I have to choose between my livelihood and the insurance and all of that or going through a medical procedure that I 100 percent don’t agree with.”

The federal vaccine mandate for businesses with 100 or more employees created riffs in the workplace before it could even be implemented. On Thursday, Jan. 13 the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the mandate for businesses but kept the healthcare mandate in place.

While some Michigan business owners were relieved to not enforce the rule, other employers had already set the policy in motion.

Kowalczyk, who is of Native American descent of the Woodland Indians, said she chose not to get the COVID-19 vaccine because of her religious beliefs. She’s among the 250 Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan employees who were terminated on Jan. 5 for not complying with the company’s vaccination deadline.

Under the proposed federal mandate, the insurance company was considered a federal contractor and therefore did not offer a testing option. The company states 1,900 unvaccinated employees received a religious exemption or chose to get the vaccine after being informed of the policy in October.

Blue Cross Blue Shield would not specify how many employees sought exemption.

A group of more than 170 terminated insurance workers who were denied a religious exemption, like Kowalczyk, have come together to take legal action against the company. Attorney Noah Hurwitz is representing the group seeking monetary damages.

Hurwitz said the lawsuit hinges on the company challenging the sincerity of employees’ beliefs, which his clients felt confident they could prove.

“It’s just a huge surprise for them to eventually be terminated from these jobs that they performed incredibly well,” he said.

The Interview

The week before Thanksgiving employees who submitted a religious exemption request were interviewed to determine the sincerity of their beliefs.

Andrew Despotovic, a former quality and training specialist at AF Group in Lansing, was among them.

Despotovic had just celebrated the birth of his son when parent company Blue Cross Blue Shield introduced the COVID-19 vaccine requirement that could end in termination. Despotovic said he felt like there was “no turning back.”

“I either have to get vaccinated or I lose that job,” he said.

Given a 15-minute slot to state his case, Andrew Despotovic showed up to the meeting with union representation. But he said he was forced to kick his union rep out or possibly lose the chance to argue for an exemption.

“It wasn’t trying to be accommodating,” he said. “It was trying to nullify my religious beliefs or nullify my reasonings on why I felt like the mandate would essentially impede my practice of my religion.”

Kowalczyk describes her interview as “an interrogation” with “absolutely no warm and fuzzies.”

Her job within coordination of benefits of Blue Care Network was a union position with the UAW. She says she didn’t receive a clear answer when she asked about union representation but felt that pushing for it would jeopardize her appeal.

“I proceeded with the conversation knowing full well that I was being denied my representation,” Kowalczyk said. “But at that point, I was afraid that if I chose my representation, that I’d be denied outright.”

Blue Cross Blue Shield denied comment when asked about union representation during the interview process.

The Denial

Having his faith questioned was difficult for Bill Agee but not meeting the criteria was even harsher.

Agee, a former team leader for inventory at Blue Cross Blue Shield, said he thought his interview for applying for religious exemption went well. Given his history as a pastor he was shocked by the denial and immediately asked to see the criteria he didn’t meet. The answer he got was copied and pasted from the frequently asked questions page, he said.

Others who were denied confided in each other about the same vicious circle of asking for clarity on their individual exemptions and receiving generic responses.

“The heartbreaking thing initially was we were all just so confused,” he said. “‘What are your expectations? What are you wanting? What are you looking for?’”

After dedicating nearly 16 years to AF Group, Tonya Wrozek found out by email her religious exemption was denied. Angry and distraught, she found it difficult to get out of bed but stuck to her firmly held Christian beliefs that God gives people free will.

Wrozek felt the emotional blow to the office when some colleagues started crying at work.

“It was just very cold. Like comply or bye,” she said.

Employees who were denied religious exemptions had until Dec. 8 to decide if they would comply with the vaccine requirement. Those who did not comply were put on unpaid leave until the final vaccination deadline of Jan. 4.

The Choice

As a new homeowner and father, Despotovic said he felt guilty choosing his beliefs over his livelihood. But after talking with his fiancée and family, he chose not to get vaccinated.

“To get to that point, there were a lot of discussions about what is the right choice and what are you willing to sacrifice just for a job,” he said. “A lot of people sacrifice their whole lives for a job and don’t get anything out of it. I was not about to sacrifice for this job to that extent.”

Despotovic now spends his days caring for his infant son and looking for jobs “left, right and center.” He skips over any positions that require the COVID-19 vaccine.

For Wrozek, it wasn’t a choice.

A strong-willed Christian who was raised Pentecostal, she acknowledged the Bible doesn’t mention vaccinations. But it’s her belief that God gives people the right to choose, and she referenced 1 Corinthians saying, “our body is our temple.”

“I was not comfortable with it. I didn’t have peace about it, so I had to stay true to myself. I had to believe, and I had to trust God that there was something else out there for me,” she said.

Nearly six weeks after the paychecks stopped, Wrozek started a new job as an office administrator for a restaurant management company in East Lansing. Her faith, which prompted her dismissal, also guided her through a brief period of unemployment.

“I believed God would provide for me and he did,” she said.

The Aftermath

Frustrated by the termination, a group of unvaccinated employees formed a support group online sharing their version of events.

“The hardest part in all this is just feeling like you were isolated in your decision,” Agee said. “Like you were the only one.”

Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan estimates 96 percent of its more than 10,000 workers are vaccinated.

“We value and respect all our employees and recognize there are strong and diverse views on the issue of the vaccine, and on the issue of mandating it. We did not arrive at this decision lightly. We also recognize our responsibility to do our part, as a health care leader, to finish the fight against COVID-19 in our communities,” the insurance company said in a statement.

Agee said it’s frustrating to be in the minority group because “we’re not just numbers.” The support group made him feel less alone and put the impact into perspective.

“This is not just 100 people,” Agee said. “This is 100 families in Michigan that are being affected by this, having had no pay three weeks before Christmas and being relieved of our job.”

That support group eventually snowballed into the pending lawsuit.

The lawsuit is still in its fact-finding phase and hasn’t been filed, Hurwitz said. The Supreme Court decision will certainly weigh in but doesn’t negate the lawsuit because employees have already lost compensation, Hurwitz said.

“We would love for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan to change course,” he said. “I know that the company probably needs a lot of these employees and so it’s frustrating that they wouldn’t sort of see the error of their ways and want to cure their staffing issues.”

Hurwitz is also representing Carhartt employees who were denied a religious exemption after the Michigan apparel company kept its vaccine policy. He notes that a private company can legally still have a vaccine policy as long as medical and religious exemptions are available.

If given the chance, Blue Cross Blue Shield employees aren’t sure they’d return to their former workplace.

For some, the handling of the policy put the company in a new, unfavorable light. The Supreme Court reversal reinforced Agee’s stance that the vaccinate-or-terminate policy wasn’t necessary.

“They made some really harsh, drastic decisions without full knowledge of it,” he said. “That to me, that was the turning point.”

For others, a piece of their lives got caught in the political crosshairs and now they’re coping with what they left behind.

“Not only did I have to go through the grieving process of losing this job, but it was my identity,” Kowalczyk said. “It’s something I’ve held great pride in to wear the UAW wheel. That’s part of who I was. I have to find out who I am now.”

©2022 Advance Local Media LLC. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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