More former Bristol Myers employees sue over COVID-19 vaccination brouhaha

Four former Bristol Myers Squibb employees who were fired by the company for refusing to be vaccinated against COVID-19 have filed a lawsuit against the drug giant.

The employees allege that BMS violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which requires companies to engage employees in a dialogue to resolve issues when religious beliefs conflict with company policies.

“This case is not about whether private companies, like defendant BMS, can impose vaccine mandates. They can,” says the complaint, which the plaintiffs filed in the U.S. District Court in New Jersey. “Any private or government vaccine mandate must still comply with state and federal law regarding exemptions.”

The employees join four others who sued BMS last December in federal court in Manhattan. Those plaintiffs also claimed the company wrongfully denied their requests for religious exemptions.

In August, another former employee, Oksana Chornomaz, also sued the company and a human resources employee, claiming she was unlawfully terminated due to her religious beliefs

"Our priority throughout the pandemic has been the health and safety of our communities, employees and patients," a company spokesperson said Wednesday via email. "Our policy that all eligible employees in U.S. and Puerto Rico be vaccinated against COVID-19 is consistent with this safety priority and our responsibility as a science-based company to help slow the spread of the virus. The policy includes a process for employees to request medical accommodations or a religious accommodation based on their sincerely held religious beliefs."

In December, BMS pointed out that it had granted religious exemptions to "some individuals," who submitted requests. .

Plaintiffs in the most recent lawsuit are four women: Lisa Rivera, a senior manager for seven years; Lisa Palmisano, a senior specialist of global QMS programs for six years; Laytesse Canty-Blackwell, a material handler for three years; and Imeelyn Bacosa, a risk evaluation and mitigation strategies specialist who had worked for Celgene since 2010 before the company was acquired by BMS.

In August of 2021, BMS sent notices to employees requiring them to indicate whether they had been vaccinated or planned to receive it. BMS informed employees they had to be vaccinated by Nov. 1.

The company wasn't alone in implementing COVID-19 vaccination requirements. Last year, Gilead and Johnson & Johnson were among the U.S. drugmakers that required employee vaccination, while Novartis and Pfizer required vaccination or routine testing for their employees.

In July, the Illinois-based NorthShore University HealthSystem agreed to a $10.3 million settlement to resolve claims against its vaccination mandate. As part of the deal, NorthShore agreed to rehire employees who were let go because they claimed religious exemptions.