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Judge says Geisinger can require virus tests

Exempted employees must adhere to rule or lose their jobs

WILLIAMSPORT — A federal judge on Tuesday dismissed an effort by a group of Geisinger employees who were granted exception to the organization’s vaccine mandate to be exempt from required COVID testing as well.

Employees who were granted waivers from the vaccine mandate are required to be tested twice weekly for COVID, and that failure to do so would lead to termination of employment.

U.S. District Judge Matthew Brann said the employees “utterly failed” to demonstrate a right to be exempt from the testing requirement, which rendered their claim “dead-on-arrival.”

In addition, Brann scolded the attorney for the employees, whom he said should have recognized Geisinger’s status as a private entity regarding constitutional rights issues.

“They assert constitutional claims against a private entity without so much as a paragraph describing how Geisinger could be considered a state actor,” Brann noted, calling it “a failing of civic education that I might sadly expect from a ordinary citizen, but which is inexcusable from a member of the bar.”

More than 100 health care workers who had received conditional religious waivers to Geisinger’s vaccine policy sued the organization on Nov. 8, claiming a violation of their rights if Geisinger Health and its affiliates pushed forward with mandatory twice weekly testing beginning the next day, unless the testing mandate applied to all staff regardless of vaccination status.

The employees asked for an injunction to halt the testing until the case was heard in court, which Brann rejected outright in his order. He said the employees failed to identify the religious belief that Geisinger was allegedly discriminating against, which in and of itself warranted dismissal.

“Federal courts are empowered to redress unlawful conduct — not conduct which parties merely perceive as unfair or incorrect,” he wrote. “And here, the Geisinger Employees have not shown that they are entitled to relief as a matter of law.”

The workers failed to meet the requirements for their claim of discrimination as well, Brann said in the opinion, noting that the plaintiffs asked for relief without filing a claim and allowing either the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission or the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to investigate such a claim.

The employees failed to show the likelihood of success on the merits of the case, he said.

Geisinger requires COVID vaccination for all employees, but grants exception for some who apply for medical and/or religious waivers, as long as they agree to the system’s testing protocol. Geisinger reported on Nov. 1 that 24,000 employees were vaccinated and that 150 lost their jobs for failing to meet the requirement.

Geisinger does not comment on ongoing legal action, but through a spokesperson confirmed Tuesday that exempted employees who did not comply with the testing requirement by the end of the day would be considered to have voluntarily resigned on Wednesday.

On Thursday, The (Sunbury) Daily Item and other media reported that a third of the plaintiffs were in non-compliance with the testing requirement and would no longer be employed, and that their attorney, Greg Stapp, of Williamsport, intended to file complaints with the state and federal antidiscrimination agencies on behalf of his clients.

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