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East Tennessee's biggest federal employers say they don't anticipate staffing problems even after Monday's deadline for all federal employees to get their COVID-19 vaccine.

While some workers continue to balk at the shots, the vast majority of federal employees got their vaccine shots by the deadline.

The leaders of America's biggest government utility, the Tennessee Valley Authority, and one of the nation's biggest energy research facilities, the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, both said Monday they don't anticipate any serious staffing shortages that would limit their operations under the newly imposed mandates.

UT-Battelle, the partnership that operates Oak Ridge, is still facing a lawsuit over its exemptions policy. But by Monday, laboratory spokesperson Morgan McCorkle said 140 of the 5,800 employees at the Department of Energy facility had not demonstrated they were fully vaccinated. Most of the unvaccinated workers had filed for a medical or religious accommodation or were otherwise on short-term disability or educational leaves.

"Fewer than 10 were terminated for not meeting UT-Battelle's vaccination requirement (which was effective Oct. 15)," McCorkle said.

Thomas Zacharia, director of the Oak Ridge lab, said the facility "will continue to work with the relatively few persons who have requested an accommodation" but he said "overall the lab is nearly 100% vaccinated, which is allowing us to continue to deliver on our core mission."

The Tenessee Valley Authority, which required all 10,000 of is employees to be vaccinated or be granted a religious or medical exemption by Monday, declined again Monday to reveal what share of its workforce remains unvaccinated. TVA is not immediately firing any unvaccinated workers, but starting Tuesday all unvaccinated workers will be subject to COVID-19 testing every four days and will be required to participate in an instructional program about the vaccines.

Despite Republican members of Congress warning that the government vaccine mandate might jeopardize TVA power operations, TVA CEO Jeff Lyash said last week, "I don't expect any disruptions in our business because of this" even after TVA ultimately dismisses workers who don't get vaccinated or obtain a religious or medical exemption to the requirement.

Nationwide, NPR quoted White House sources who said more than 90% of 3.5 million federal employees will have had at least one COVID-19 vaccine dose by the end of Monday, the deadline for the largest workforce in the nation to get vaccinated under a mandate imposed by President Joe Biden in September. An additional 5% of workers have requested or received an exception or an extension, the official told NPR.

That's well ahead of the 71% vaccination rate for all U.S. adults or the 49.2% of Tennessee adults who have been fully vaccinated as of Nov. 20.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said on Friday that experience with other similar mandates in the private sector indicates there could be a last-minute rush to meet the requirements and submit paperwork.

UT-Battelle imposed a deadline for its employees at Oak Ridge to show proof of their vaccine or request a religious or medical accommodation, by Oct. 15. That was more than three months ahead of the Jan. 18 deadline for federal contractors. Zacharia said that reflects the ongoing efforts to keep the lab functioning and workers on the job through the pandemic.

"Going back to our heritage as a laboratory that came into existence as part of the Manhattan project [to build America's first atomic bomb during World War II], we decided early on in the pandemic that we needed to stay open to fulfill our critical mission, and the only way to do that was through testing, tracing and everything we could to keep our staff healthy," Zacharia said. "When the vaccines became available, we recognized that vaccines were the best thing we could do to protect our staff, and the response to the vaccine mandate has been overwhelmingly positive."

Some workers have objected to the accommodation provided by UT-Battelle for those requesting a religious or medical exemption to the vaccine. Although some workers at the lab continue to do their jobs remotely, those who requested a religious or medical accommodation were put on unpaid leave, according to a lawsuit filed against the operators of the lab.

A Washington, D.C. law firm representing a half dozen affected employees blasted what it called "discriminatory actions stemming from the company's refusal to grant any reasonable religious or medical accommodations from its COVID-19 vaccine mandate."

"This case is about protecting the rights of hardworking and sincere employees at Oak Ridge National Laboratory who are being victimized by their company's oppressive mandate by forcing them to either violate their religious faith or lose their job," said Mark R. Paoletta, the partner at Schaerr Jaffe who is lead counsel in this case. "No one should have to make that terrible choice in America."

On Oct. 29, U.S. District Judge Charles Atchley Jr. denied a motion to immediately block the vaccine mandate at the lab but he said he was sympathetic to the employees' complaints about the way their religious and medical requests for a waiver were handled.

The judge said the court did not find the employees would be irreparably harmed by UT-Battelle's actions, clearing the way for UT-Battelle to enforce its vaccine mandate and place exempted employees on unpaid leave.

"The issue as to whether UT-Battelle was justified in issuing a blanket accommodation without individually assessing accommodations for each distinct employee remains unclear and raises significant questions," Atchley said. "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."

Contact Dave Flessner at dflessner@timesfreepress.com or at 423-757-6340.

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