Nuclear Scientists Sound Alarm on Lab Vaccine Mandates: ‘Fallout Will Be Felt for Months to Come’
Jordan and Robert Lefebvre are on the frontline of another kind of fight — a lawsuit against their employer UT-Battelle and the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) for trying to place unvaccinated employees who obtained religious and medical exemptions on unpaid leave.
If the unfathomable tragedy of nuclear war ever struck the United States, the Lefebvre twins would be called in, like a scene from Ben Affleck’s The Sum of All Fears, to execute modeling and simulation for nuclear fallout.
But for now, Jordan and Robert Lefebvre are on the frontline of another kind of fight — a lawsuit against their employer UT-Battelle and the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) for trying to place unvaccinated employees who obtained religious and medical exemptions on unpaid leave.
In an exclusive two-hour December video call, the brothers meticulously detailed how pandemic politics have infiltrated ORNL, a 30,000-acre campus with over 300 buildings that house a publicly unknown amount of top secret projects pertaining to national security. The lab is overseen by UT-Battelle and contracts 100 percent of its business with the U.S. Department of Energy — $2.4 billion worth — doing research and development on nuclear energy and modeling systems, stockpile testing, and many other activities that require special clearances to participate in.
ORNL’s roughly 5,700-plus employees worked through the pandemic, many remotely, preparing “deliverables” and executing their various projects while adhering to masking, testing, and social distancing measures. Now, several hundred unvaccinated employees have either been fired, or are waiting with bated breath as a class action lawsuit makes it way to a federal appeals court. From truck drivers, to people who are “close to the codes,” ORNL has lost or stands to lose employees the Lefebvre’s described as “unique and specialized” and “very difficult to replace” — all while America’s enemies, Russia and China, bolster their arsenals.
“I could go on about the impact on the morale, the near-term milestones, and objectives of many, many projects — all of that fallout…will be felt in the months to come,” Jordan said, noting that he easily worked 60 hours per week before a vaccine mandate was announced. “It is being felt onsite at the national labs right now because we were already overwhelmed with the amount of work that we needed to accomplish.”
Robert said ORNL is not the only lab suffering from the “fallout” of coronavirus vaccine mandates and noted that UT-Battelle oversees several other labs and has likely facilitated similar policies elsewhere.
“There are people who are leaders in their specialization who are being ostracized. Who’s picking up that slack? Who’s continuing that mission? It’s difficult to have backups for people who are so specialized,” he said when asked about implications for national security. “And so there’s a lot of loss of continuity in efforts — your mission scope— and obviously, you can imagine the mission scope across the national lab and security complex and how this could fall out.”
Even though District Court Judge Charles Atchley Jr. for the Eastern District of Tennessee in late October ultimately denied ORNL employee’s motion for a preliminary injunction while litigation continues, Atchley said UT-Battelle’s mandate could arguably be called “ill-advised and underthought.”
“Much can be said about the way UT-Battelle handled their accommodation processes. For a company that prides itself on the importance of its national security mission and the role it plays in protecting the interests of the United States, it is difficult to view its treatment of employees as thoughtful or prudent,” the judge wrote in his decision.
The Catholic brothers described their careers as being marked by a “meteoric trajectory” — both have degrees in computer science and have worked together at ORNL since 2009 (though Jordan resigned on December 1, 2021), and ultimately became group leaders responsible for multi-million dollar projects. In their personal lives, they said their faith shapes how they view the world — specifically their passion for the pro-life movement.
“Our mother had us on the prayer lines, holding our own prayer banners, pro-life banners very early, 6 a.m. at the abortion clinics saying our rosaries. So we’ve always been very, very aware. The sanctity of human life runs deep in our veins,” Jordan said.
When the pair found out the coronavirus vaccines were created using fetal cell lines in lab testing, development, or both, they decided to forego vaccination.
On September 16, 2021, ORNL Director Thomas Zacharia sent an email to all staff that accommodations such as face coverings and testing, accommodations employed throughout the pandemic, “might not adequately protect staff,” court documents allege.
“He therefore threatened, before ORNL began any interactive process of interviewing employees with religious objections, that “staff members who are granted a religious exemption should be prepared to be on unpaid leave” beginning October 15, “potentially until the end of the pandemic,’” the complaint continues.
Jordan said they both quickly submitted their application for religious exemptions. On September 17, Jordan checked ORNL’s online portal throughout the day, and in the evening he said he noticed his exemption application went from “pending” to “declined.”
“There was no communication,” he said. “We had been promised on the forms that it would be an interactive process.” For context, an interactive individual process when giving employees the chance to receive a reasonable accommodation is a standard legal process under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Jordan said he emailed Human Resources about the portal change, but never received a response. Within an hour, the decision column was reportedly removed from the portal.
Monday the following week, higher-ups asked Jordan to participate in an interview pertaining to his religious beliefs. On September 21, Jordan entered a smaller than 12×12 room with four people inside. Notably, ORNL’s coronavirus policy mandated that Jordan have no more than two people in his office at a time. Jordan said his office was slightly bigger than the interview room, meaning management was allegedly breaking its own rules to interview an unvaccinated employee.
“They subsequently started to interrogate me,” Jordan said.
According to Jordan, the panel asked him to describe his objections to the vaccines, describe the depth of his faith, explain his opinion on religious leaders’ beliefs about the vaccines, and asked him if he has taken over the counter medications, many of which have been tested using fetal cell lines.
After the interview, Jordan said he helped prepare Robert for his interview, which was scheduled for the next day — but the interview was canceled a few hours before it was supposed to take place. The brothers later found out everyone’s interviews had been canceled and an email went out to those who obtained exemptions officially telling them they were to be placed on unpaid leave.
According to the brothers, ORNL canceled the in-person interviews because a few people who had been interviewed (in the small room which management selected and which was not in line with pandemic protocol) tested positive for coronavirus. Despite the fact that many employees were working remotely, management did not move exemption interviews online.
“They said we — the unvaccinated — were putting the vaccinated panel at risk because both days individuals tested positive,” Jordan said.
Subsequently, the brothers noticed their benefits were rewritten several times, and that is when they said they knew management was definitely not “bluffing.” Then, on September 25, Zacharia sent a lab leadership email titled “Today’s Meeting” which included a message from Associate Lab Director Stan Wullschleger stating that UT-Battelle employees “make decisions that impact themselves and their families” based on their “values, beliefs, and worldviews,” and that “[t]hose decisions have consequences and I’m both confident and comfortable that we have communicated those consequences to everyone,” according to court documents.
“Rob and I started hunting down — we pretty much put a serious campaign together to reach out and find absolutely everybody who had put in for an exemption,” Jordan said, adding that they were eventually able to find 130 employees who obtained religious exemptions.
“We had the option to walk away from it or stand up and, and fight,” Robert said.
The pair spent the next several weeks preparing for the lawsuit after finding representation with Schaerr Jaffe, a powerhouse D.C. law firm which is also representing United Airlines employees in another high-profile vaccine mandate case, as well as additional mandate challenges in other states.
“You’re talking about hours and hours of reading peoples’ stories — just emotionally eviscerating,” Robert said, specifically mentioning an employee who has a loved one that requires tens of thousands of dollars in cancer treatments.
“I am six-foot-two, and I dropped to 145 pounds,” Jordan said, detailing how the stress took a toll on him physically.
“Yeah, 10 percent of my body mass lost,” Robert added.
Judge Atchley initially granted a Temporary Restraining Order (TRO) on October 15 until he could be presented with more evidence at a later hearing. During that those few weeks, ORNL called back employees whom it had begun to place on unpaid leave. Many of these employees had already read out of their security clearances — clearances which can take months to retrieve.
On October 29, the judge ended up denying the employees a preliminary injunction, saying unpaid leave did not constitute irreparable harm. However, Atchley did note that “plaintiffs’ arguments appear convincing—particularly concerning their Title VII failure to accommodate claim,” and slammed UT-Battelle for reflecting a “shocking indifference to some of its employees.” The case is apparently on hold while a similar case is pending at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, which has jurisdiction over Tennessee.
Despite the current state of the lawsuit, UT Battelle’s mandate has been crushed — at least temporarily — by other outside factors. Tennessee has a state law that says companies cannot mandate vaccines. While there is an exemption for companies that receive federal funding like UT-Battelle, a November 30 preliminary injunction placed on President Joe Biden’s vaccine mandate for federal contractors was issued for Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee. According to the Lefebvre’s, UT-Battelle decided to comply with state law following the preliminary injunction and told people they could report back to work in early December.
While the move may seem like a victory for the unvaccinated, Robert warned the action may only be temporary.
“Some of the group who were called back were outright told that it’s temporary, that it might be X number of weeks, Y number of months, but… don’t expect it to be permanent,” he said.
Jordan ultimately decided to part ways with ORNL, though Robert still works for the company. Robert said what has been most disappointing is seeing how those who wish to forego the vaccine are being painted, including highly trained scientists and engineers.
“There’s a sense that anyone who is a scientist or an engineer cannot have religious convictions. And so in their mind they don’t mesh. So if, if somebody gets ostracized because of this, then they weren’t a good scientist, or they’re not a scientist, we’re all just janitors,” Robert said.
This is something that I’m seeing on social media, surrounding the news stories — they’re not necessarily understanding that we are scientists. We are the people that are working and leading the mission space in our national labs and security complexes. It comes down to the logic of why, and history will hopefully tell. What we know right now is that because of our religious convictions, they removed our site and cyber access, even though we had been working throughout the pandemic, significantly remotely.
Jordan agreed, adding that as scientists who work with nuclear energy, safety is obviously a top priority and the pandemic is no different.
“We as scientists, we as staff at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory hold safety on a pedestal. It is the foremost thing — it’s the first thing we do above security even at the lab, is safety first,” he said “…They trust of with millions of dollars worth of project funds, project execution, national security, sensitive information, mentorship of our staff, hiring new staff — and they don’t trust us with checking ourselves for symptoms before we come onsite or getting tested.”
“Literally, they treat us like COVID,” he concluded.
The case is Bilyeu v. UT-Battelle, No. 3:21-cv-352 in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee.
– By Katherine Hamilton