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Some BWXT employees protest vaccine mandate ahead of January termination deadline
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Some BWXT employees protest vaccine mandate ahead of January termination deadline

BWXT protest 1

Protesters stand in front of BWX Technologies’ headquarters at 800 Main St. in downtown Lynchburg on Wednesday to protest a vaccine mandate that will take effect on Jan. 3.

More than 70 BWX Technologies employees and their supporters gathered Wednesday outside the company’s downtown Lynchburg headquarters, many hefting signs in protest of the firm’s mandate requiring all employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19 by Jan. 3 or face termination.

The new policy follows direction from the Biden administration that aims to mandate vaccines or regular weekly testing for private-sector businesses with 100 or more workers.

BWXT spokesman Jud Simmons said every U.S. BWXT employee soon will be subject either to the federal contractual mandate for COVID-19 vaccination and/or the OSHA Emergency Temporary Standard regulation. As a result, the company is requiring all U.S. employees to be fully vaccinated as a condition of employment.

BWXT also will consider medical and religious exemptions to the vaccination mandate. Employees were formally notified of the vaccination requirements Oct. 26.

Wes Gardner has been working for the nuclear-services firm for 16 years. One of the protest organizers, he said until the new mandate was announced, he had planned to work there until retirement. Now, he said he doesn’t know if he will get the chance.

“After 16 years of working down there, to say that if I don’t have a shot, nothing else I’ve done over the last 16 years has been any accomplishment is kind of a slap in the face,” Gardner said, “and a lot of the people out here feel the same way.”

At its core, Gardner said the protest is a stand for “civil liberties,” including medical and religious freedoms.

Currently, face masks are mandatory for vaccinated and unvaccinated workers, but Gardner said masks aren’t the issue — it’s the mandatory vaccine that has driven dozens of employees to protest, demanding change and open dialogue with BWXT leadership.

Gardner said they are asking for “a seat at the table.” Many protesters want to see the mandate rolled back, and regular testing offered in its stead.

The bottom line, said another protester and BWXT employee, Jeremiah Vess, is that it is his “freedom to reject” the vaccine. He said BWXT is holding employment and livelihood over their heads.

“It is still a choice,” Vess said. “If we don’t stand up now, where is the end of it? Where is it actually going to stop?”

BWXT employs 6,700 people in North America and roughly 2,500 in the Lynchburg area, most of whom work at the company’s Mt. Athos facility in Campbell County. While Simmons said vaccination rates at BWXT facilities are “generally higher” than the larger population, he said BWXT does not publicly release vaccination percentages at its sites.

Craning his neck, Gardner looked up at the brick façade of the office building at 800 Main St.

“Right now, they are in a tower downtown,” he said. “It’s kind of hard to have open and honest conversations with individuals who don’t even work in the same building.”

He said many employees were willing to file religious exemption forms, but that some of the questions were an “invasion of privacy” and attempts to “disqualify someone’s religious stance.”

All medical and religious exemption forms are subject to review by BWXT. Simmons said reviews of the exemption requests were being done in a “thoughtful and methodical manner.”

“This mandate is unprecedented for our workers and our company, and we understand that employees have concerns or may desire more information,” Simmons said Wednesday in a statement to The News & Advance.

As of noon Wednesday, Gardner said protesters had not heard any response from the company but had heard an outpouring of support from the community.

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