Former insurance employee gets damages in religious beliefs vaccine case

Former BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee (BCBST) employee Tanja Benton has been awarded over $680,000 by a Tennessee federal jury following a verdict that the insurer failed to offer reasonable accommodation for her religious beliefs.

The jury concluded that BCBST “did not prove by a preponderance of the evidence either that it had offered a reasonable accommodation to Plaintiff or that it could not reasonably accommodate the Plaintiff’s religious beliefs without undue hardship.”

The total damages awarded to Benton amounted to $687,240, which included $177,240 in back pay, $10,000 in compensatory damages, and $500,000 in punitive damages.

In a related case, a group of employees terminated by BCBST for a Title VII violation concerning religious discrimination linked to the COVID-19 vaccine mandate are currently litigating against the state’s largest health insurer.

A spokesperson for the group indicated that, following an extensive investigation by the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the former employees have initiated a class action suit in federal court.

It was noted that during October and November 2021, BCBST dismissed employees after implementing a vaccine mandate for 900 so-called customer-facing roles.

However, it was pointed out that many of the roles were occupied by full-time telecommuters who had been working remotely throughout the pandemic.

Out of the 900 employees, 41 refused to get vaccinated and were subsequently fired. Specifically, 19 were terminated in October of that year and an additional 22 were fired in November 2021, weeks before Tennessee passed a law prohibiting BCBST from enforcing the mandate.

Numerous employees submitted requests for religious exemptions and reasonable accommodations, such as continuing telecommuting or undergoing regular testing.

According to the group, BCBST responded by giving them 30 days to either get vaccinated, find another job, or face termination – essentially declining the requests for religious exemptions.

By Terry Gangcuangco