While they don’t represent districts where the shipyard is located, two state legislators – Rep. Owen and Sen. McDaniel – are speaking out.
Since President Joe Biden handed down the mandate that all employees of federal contractors be vaccinated or face termination of their contracts, Mississippi’s largest industrial employer – Huntington Ingalls Shipbuilding – has taken steps to pass that requirement on to their workers, giving them until December 8th to get the COVID vaccine or be fired.
Ingalls has also passed along the vaccine requirement to their subcontractors.
READ MORE: Ingalls tells employees get vaccinated or lose job due to President Biden’s federal COVID vaccine mandate
This week, Ingalls released an employee memo regarding the vaccine mandate, outlining what employees who do not comply with the requirement can expect as it relates to their benefits, even if they plan to retire.
The company has not released a statement on how many workers this mandate will impact and that could be facing termination for non-compliance.
Protests against the federal vaccine mandate have been held by employees, supportive family, and community members outside of the Huntington Ingalls Shipyard in Pascagoula.
An Ingalls employee speaking with Y’all Politics on the condition of anonymity, concerned about his job if his name is released, said it is a shame more local lawmakers in Jackson County are not trying to help them challenge these federal mandates.
“At least a few people are paying attention and trying to do something to help us fight this even if they aren’t from around here,” he said. “But why aren’t our state senators and representatives willing to speak up and do something?”
Another Ingalls employee, also who did not want to be named, said he chose to be vaccinated but it is not right to force others to be. He said he wants the state to make a statement against the President by either passing protections against the federal mandate or suing to protect workers’ right.
“I took the shot, but I did it because I chose to. No one made me do it,” the Ingalls employee said. “The State of Mississippi is suppose to represent us and fight for our rights when the feds do this stuff. That’s who should be suing Biden, not us. We’re just trying to get by. The state can sue on our behalf, or at least pass a law that protects us and then if Biden wants to sue the state then OK. But we can’t do this alone, and Ingalls isn’t going to fight it because they need the contracts.”
Lawmakers in Mississippi, even in Jackson County where Ingalls is located, have largely been reluctant to engage in the matter, using the refrain that federal law trumps state law, deflecting the issue away from the state and toward Mississippi’s Congressional delegation.
State Senator Jeremy England, a Republican representing parts of Jackson County, told Y’all Politics earlier this month that if the state passes legislation that would forbid employers from imposing federal mandates it would put Ingalls in a precarious situation, jeopardizing the company’s ability to get those federal contracts to build the Navy ships and hurting the community as a whole.
“As an attorney, I want to treat my constituents just like I treat my clients. If there’s not an easy answer, I don’t want to waste their time or their money trying to just drag this out as long as possible,” Senator England said. “They [the employees at Ingalls] need to know right now that there’s not an easy way out of this, and if they talk to their doctor and their doctor says it’s safe to get the vaccine that may be the best option for them to keep their employment to keep their benefits right now.”
However, two other Mississippi state legislators have shown the willingness to at least try and use the weight of the state to counter what most conservatives consider overreach by the Biden Administration.
Last week, State Rep. Jansen Owen, a Republican representing Lamar and Pearl River counties, sent a letter to Governor Tate Reeves asking him to consider adding legislation aimed at circumventing or mitigating the impact of vaccine mandates to a special session call prior to the start of the 2022 session.
Rep. Owen wrote that it is not the responsibility of the federal government to decide for individuals whether or not to take the vaccine.
“Instead of using his position to encourage Americans to get vaccinated, Joe Biden’s unprecedented vaccine mandates tells millions of Americans that they have but one choice: get the shot – or else you lose your ability to earn a living, pay your bills, and feed your family,” State Rep. Owen told Governor Reeves. “The mandates go so far as to conscript private businesses to federal service – as arms of federal vaccine mandate enforcement. All by executive fiat. That’s not freedom. That’s not liberty. That’s not America.”
READ MORE: MS State Representative asks Governor Reeves to add items to special session call to send Biden administration a clear message
Now, State Senator Chris McDaniel, a Republican from Jones County, has penned a letter to the President of Ingalls, Kari Wilkinson, challenging the company’s stance on the issue and saying that Ingalls has set arbitrary and hasty deadlines for its employees to file for exemptions related to a disability or a sincerely held religious belief.
McDaniel writes that the paperwork by which Ingalls employees request exemptions appears to be designed with “the bad faith purpose of denying all requests summarily, running afoul of traditional employment practices and EEOC’s guidelines. ”
“When an employee’s objection to a COVID-19 vaccination requirement is religious in nature or is sincerely held, Title VII protects the employee from discrimination. Once requested, EEOC guidance clarifies that the employer should assume that such a request is based on a sincerely held religious belief,” Senator McDaniel tells the Ingalls President. “Upon acceptance of the request, the history of the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrates the numerous ways an employer may provide reasonable accommodations for the affected employees. An employer cannot reject an accommodation simply because it costs money; an employer must weigh the cost of an accommodation against its current budget while considering constraints created by this pandemic. Even under present circumstances, there are many no-cost or very low-cost accommodations available to Ingalls’ employees.”
McDaniel says termination or unpaid leave would not be considered a permissible accommodation and could result in EEOC complaints and subsequent legal claims for discrimination and monetary damages.
Senator McDaniel tells Wilkinson that he supports Ingalls employees in this matter, and that he trusts the company’s management will make decisions with the employees’ safety and individual rights as primary considerations.
You can read McDaniel’s full letter to Ingalls President Wilkinson below.
Senator McDaniel says litigation has been filed to combat Biden’s overreach, and more lawsuits are anticipated.
Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves (R) has called President Biden’s vaccine mandates unconstitutional, saying that while the vaccines are life-saving, it is a “terrifying” move by the federal government.
“This is still America, and we still believe in freedom from tyrants,” Governor Reeves said after Biden’s announcement. That comment drew criticism from the President.
To date, 24 state Attorneys General, including Mississippi’s Lynn Fitch (R), have threatened a lawsuit against the mandate, with some filing for restraining orders and preliminary injunctions as the federal deadline nears. Another dozen or so state legislatures are considering action at this time.
The State of Mississippi has not taken any formal action against the federal vaccine mandates, by way of the courts or through legislation, as of this report.