By Darlene McCormick Sanchez
Seven former Disney employees, who say they were unlawfully fired for refusing COVID-19 vaccinations and failing to adhere to masking policies, have updated a Florida lawsuit against the entertainment giant, claiming religious and disability discrimination.
The 68-page lawsuit against Disney and its subsidiaries, originally filed in July, was updated in the Ninth Judicial Circuit Court in Osceola County, Florida, on Dec. 23. The update adds four plaintiffs to the case and more claims of Florida law violations, according to Rachel Rodriguez, an attorney for the plaintiffs.
The former employees want Disney to reinstate their jobs, pay lost wages and benefits, pay attorney fees, and remove any disciplinary documentation in their employment files related to COVID-19 mandates or protocols.
Rodriguez said the case could be significant because it deals with privacy rights in the Florida Constitution and vaccine mandates in Florida. The lawsuit also deals with constitutional questions of bodily autonomy, equal protection, and the enjoyment of rights free from threats and intimidation.
Though Disney said it had paused its vaccine requirements for employees, it enforced “augmented protocols” that punished those who didn’t get vaccinated, the lawsuit alleges.
According to the lawsuit, Disney burdened those who objected to the vaccine for religious reasons with restrictions that went beyond the company’s original pandemic policy.
Most plaintiffs were fired from jobs at Disney and its sister companies in late 2021 and in 2022—after Florida passed laws banning vaccine mandates in November 2021.
The plaintiffs filed for vaccine exemptions, objecting to taking COVID-19 vaccines based on their religious beliefs. Some cited the use of fetal cells in testing or manufacturing.
Others said taking the vaccine violated their religious conviction that the body is a “temple” that should not be desecrated with “poison,” according to the lawsuit.
According to the lawsuit, only those who were not vaccinated had to follow Disney’s protocols.
“In essence, you had to wear goggles or a face shield and PPE (Personal Protective Equipment),” Rodriguez said.
“Why?” she asked. “Not because you’re contagious, not because you just were contagious, but because you don’t have a vaccine.”
Disney saw the former employees as “vectors of a disease,” which should have given them protection from receiving different treatment or being fired for that perceived disability under Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Rodriguez said.
“You can’t discriminate against people just because you think they’re disabled.”
Vaccinated Versus Unvaccinated
Rodriguez said that Disney required employees to verify their vaccination status through an app that amounted to a vaccine passport—which she contends violated Florida law.
Disney continued its mask mandates for the unvaccinated even after Feb. 24, when the Florida Department of Health (FDOH) no longer advised businesses to require face coverings for employees, according to the lawsuit.
The state agency’s updated position was that requiring face coverings offered no significant benefit against the spread of COVID-19.
While unvaccinated workers still had to follow the company’s COVID-19 protocols, Disney lifted restrictions on wearing masks for vaccinated employees, the lawsuit alleges.
And Disney retaliated against five of the seven plaintiffs after they spoke up against Disney’s augmented protocols, according to the lawsuit. Those firings were in violation of laws protecting whistleblowers, Rodriguez said.
The lawsuit detailed how employees, many of whom worked at Disney for more than a decade with stellar employment records, tried to file for religious or medical exemptions, only to be met with resistance and scorn.
Plaintiff Barbara Andreas, hired by Disney in 2001, worked as a guest experience manager at ESPN Wide World of Sports in Osceola County. She was often rewarded for her job performance through bonuses and salary increases, according to the lawsuit.
She filed a religious exemption to Disney’s mandate for employees to take the COVID-19 vaccine and included a signed, notarized letter from her pastor at The Church at the Cross.
Andreas rejected getting the vaccine because it used “aborted fetal cells” in the manufacturing or testing, which ran counter to her Christian beliefs, according to the lawsuit.
She also objected to covering her face, because her religious creeds included grooming and dress.
“Wearing a face covering is an affront of my Christian beliefs,” she wrote.
At one point, Andreas said she was questioned for 40 minutes about her objections by a Disney official. The lawsuit described “extremely intrusive and inappropriate questions” about her lifestyle, grooming habits, and beliefs.
Plaintiff Stephen Cribb, a guest experience manager employed at Disney for 11 years, had won the Walt Disney Legacy Award, the highest honor awarded to cast members.
Management asked him to abandon his religious convictions on the vaccine because of FDA approval and continued to debate the merits of his religious beliefs, according to the lawsuit.
He, too, requested a religious exemption against the vaccination based on the use of cells from “a terminated fetus” during development or testing.
“As a devout and practicing Christian, I have strong religious convictions against abortion,” he wrote.
Plaintiff Adam Pajer was a Disney cast member for seven years and worked as a banquet server at the resorts and theme parks.
His religious exemption was based on his belief that the human body is “God’s temple” and that injecting a harmful substance into the body was against his Christian beliefs.
“Our bodies were not made by God to put a known poison into it,” he wrote.
Pajer began passing out discrimination notices to managers who tried to enforce mask mandates. He printed out pieces of paper with a blank space to fill in the name of the person discriminating against him with a large bold title: “Discrimination in the workplace.”
The lawsuit included a photo of Pajer’s form and its language that, in part, reads: “You are hereby notified that you are breaking the law: attacking mine and other civil liberties, our God-given rights endowed inside the United States Constitution and discriminating against us by means of harassment, intimidation, segregation, and bullying,”
When he attempted to hand one of the notices to a supervisor on May 12, he was called into an office with three supervisors who allegedly belittled and harassed him, the lawsuit alleges.
One “grabbed a lighter and attempted to burn it while Mr. Pajer still held the paper in his hand,” according to the lawsuit.
Masks Required for Work at Home
According to the lawsuit, even employees who worked from home were forced to follow masking protocols.
“That just tells you it has nothing to do with health and safety,” Rodriguez said.
Cheron Hayes, hired in 2007, worked remotely as a financial analyst for Disney Gift Card Services during the pandemic.
When Disney announced its vaccinate-or-terminate mandate, she was told to comply by October 2021, even though she worked from home.
After hearing from other employees that Disney wasn’t granting religious exemptions, she decided not to request one. Instead, she filed a request for a medical exemption in August 2021, based on prior severe reactions to the flu and shingles vaccinations.
Her doctor had said she should be admitted to the hospital if she were to take the COVID-19 vaccine, due to her history of severe adverse reactions and allergies to common vaccine ingredients.
According to the lawsuit, Disney denied her request to continue working from home, so she could avoid getting the vaccine. She already was a remote worker, not in contact with other cast members or guests.
Disney fired Hayes on Nov. 8, 2021, 11 days before Florida’s laws prohibiting employer vaccine mandates went into effect.
Rodriguez said the defendants in the case have yet to respond to the lawsuit. They include The Walt Disney Company, Disney Parks, Experiences and Products; Reedy Creek Improvement District; Walt Disney Parks and Resorts U.S.; Disney Gift Card Services; Disney Human Services Co.; and Disney Vacation Club Management.
Disney did not respond to a request for comment.