Federal government sues Wisconsin operator over flu shot requirement

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Federal government sues Wisconsin operator over flu shot requirement
Federal government sues Wisconsin operator over flu shot requirement

The Justice Department announced Tuesday that it has sued a Wisconsin county that operates a senior living community, alleging that the community discriminated against an employee by not granting her a religious exemption to its flu vaccination requirement.

The Ozaukee County government, which operates the Lasata Senior Living Campus, violated the Civil Rights Act by its actions against Barnell Williams, the Justice Department said. Williams was a nursing assistant at the Lasata Care Center, the skilled nursing and rehabilitation part of the campus, which also includes independent living and assisted living, according to the department.

According to the complaint, Lasata discriminated against Williams by not accommodating her religious beliefs when she sought an exemption to the community's requirement that employees be vaccinated against influenza. Lasata's policy at the time allegedly allowed workers to skip the shot for religious reasons if they had a written note from a clergy member. Williams could not provide such a letter, however, because she did not belong to a church. When Lasata denied her request for a religious exemption, she got a flu shot because she allegedly was told that otherwise her employment would be terminated.

The lawsuit alleges that Lasata's policy permitting only employees who could obtain a letter from a clergy member to receive a religious accommodation violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. Title VII, a federal statute, prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex and religion.

The complaint also alleges that Lasata unlawfully denied Williams a reasonable accommodation of her religious objection to the flu shot by denying her a request for an exemption without the requisite showing that doing so would cause an undue hardship.

The U.S. government is seeking compensatory and other damages for Williams.

Ozaukee County, according to an article posted on WISN, said, “The county will file a motion to dismiss the Justice Department lawsuit and believe that current case law will support our motion.”

The county is not the first employer to be sued over its flu shot requirements. In January 2017, for instance, Saint Vincent Health Center in Erie, PA, agreed to pay $300,000 in back pay and compensatory damages after firing six employees who objected to a flu vaccination policy on religious grounds.

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