by Brian S. Weinstock
Missouri has its first decision on a challenge to a private company’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate. The U.S. District Court of Western Missouri heard a petition for an injunction against Tyson Foods’ COVID-19 vaccine mandate and the company prevailed. In Reese v. Tyson Foods, Inc., Clifton Reese, a Tyson Foods employee, had requested a Temporary Restraining Order and/or Preliminary Injunction against Tyson Foods regarding its COVID-19 vaccine mandate.
In Reese, Tyson announced a vaccine mandate that all employees nationwide to be fully vaccinated by specified dates. The policy stated that employees seeking religious or medical accommodations should contact Tyson human resources “immediately.” Clifton Reese waited a month before making his request for religious accommodation. He refused the company’s accommodation of unpaid leave, but Tyson formally notified Reese that his religious accommodation was granted with the following stipulations:
1. The accommodation status could change at any time.
2. Because his accommodation of unpaid leave of absence was not job-protected, the position could be filled if necessary.
3. If providing the accommodation was an undue hardship to the employer, the accommodation could be revoked. The employee would then have to comply with the mandate or be subject to termination.
Reese filed a complaint with the Missouri Human Rights Commission and sent a demand letter to Tyson to continue his employment under existing COVID-19 restrictions to receive his full bonus, salary, and benefits. During the hearing, Reese admitted he did not understand benefits he would receive during unpaid leave, such as continuation of health benefits, the ability to look for new employment within or outside of the company, and keeping earned bonuses.
Tyson responded that it was reviewing the demand, but Reese filed a lawsuit requesting a preliminary injunction against mandate claiming violation of public policy, assault, breach of contract, invasion of privacy, violation of the Missouri Human Rights Act (MHRA).
The Court denied all of Reese’s claims. In particular, the Court determined Reese failed to establish the irreparable harm element required for injunctive relief. Instead, the Court agreed with Tyson that the harm from a preliminary injunction to the health and safety to coworkers, their families, and communities and to the company (which would have “to fundamentally alter its strategy for addressing the health risks posed to its employees and customers by the COVID-19 pandemic”) outweighed the harm to Reese.
The Court also determined the public interest favors private actions, such as Tyson’s COVID-19 vaccination policy because it “advances the goal of protecting the health and safety of its employees and others with whom they interact.”
Takeaways for Private Business Owners
1. Work with an attorney to create your own COVID-19 vaccination policy.
2. Provide specific guidance and deadlines for employees to request religious and/or medical accommodation.
3. Include stipulations regarding possible changes to accommodation status.
4. Provide employees with all information regarding benefits they would receive while on unpaid leave.
Bottom line: Consult an employment lawyer to create or review any COVID-19 vaccine mandate policy you want to implement at your company.
Brian S. Weinstock concentrates on real estate and corporate transactional law, workers’ compensation, insurance defense, and other civil and commercial litigation. For businesses, he provides financial and legal analysis as well as operational strategies and ideas to manage risk. Brian can be reached at 314.889.7146 or firstname.lastname@example.org.