More fired Disney employees join lawsuits over COVID vaccine, masks

Four additional former Disney employees who refused to be vaccinated for COVID-19 or wear a face mask at work have joined a lawsuit against the company over its previous COVID safety policies, saying they were fired for opposing the rules based on their religious beliefs.

Steven Gibbons, Cheron Hayes, Cathryn Koepke and Seth Schmidt on Dec. 23 added their names to a lawsuit filed by fellow ex-Disney employees Barbara Andreas, Stephen Cribb and Adam Pajer in Osceola Circuit Court in July.

One plaintiff’s account in the suit accused Disney of continuing its vaccine mandate after suspending it following state legislation restricting employers’ abilities to enforce such regulations.

In court records, Hayes claimed she applied for and was offered two jobs at Disney after she was fired in November 2021. Hayes said Disney required her to be vaccinated for COVID-19 as a condition of those offers, extended in February and September 2022, and she requested exemptions again but was denied.

Disney paused its mandatory employee vaccine mandate, issued in July 2021, that November after Gov. Ron DeSantis signed several laws cracking down on workplace vaccine mandates. One law requires employers to let workers forgo vaccination if they agree to routine COVID-19 testing and to wear protective gear.

Disney continued to require unvaccinated employees to wear masks at work afterward under the law. The plaintiffs claimed that was an unreasonable accommodation that isolated them from other workers.

A document in the suit shows Disney stopped requiring face coverings for its unvaccinated theme park employees and Florida workers in August 2022. The seven plaintiffs were fired between November 2021 and June 2022.

They are suing the Walt Disney Co. and several subsidiaries, including its theme parks division, along with the Reedy Creek Improvement District over the policies. The suit alleges Disney’s relationship with the district makes it a “local government entity” subject to public employer laws, and state law prohibits local governments from imposing vaccine mandates on employees.

The workers claim Disney violated state and federal civil rights laws, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Florida Constitution and Florida statutes on whistleblowing.

The lawsuit said the workers filed complaints about Disney’s practices with state and federal authorities, including the Florida Attorney General and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Via a jury trial, they are seeking a declaratory judgment that Disney’s mandate is unlawful and violated their privacy rights under the state constitution.

Lawyer Rachel Rodriguez said in an email the ex-employees “look forward to Disney’s coming to the table and responding to the claims.”

Representatives for Disney and the Reedy Creek Improvement District did not respond to a request for comment.

According to the lawsuit, the plaintiffs opposed the vaccine for reasons including that vaccination is an “unnatural process, contrary to the God-given immune system” and that the “fetal cells” used in vaccine development violate their beliefs on abortion. No COVID-19 vaccine contains such cells, but lab-grown cell lines derived from decades-old tissue samples were used in research and development.

Records show Hayes and Koepke also applied for medical exemptions due to previous adverse reactions to vaccines. The women worked from home in financial analytics and human resources, and they argued the mandate was unreasonable because they were remote.

Several ex-employees also opposed Disney’s face-covering policies. In court records, computer systems technician Gibbons said he found it difficult to breathe in the required N95 masks at work, and Hollywood Studios attractions employee Schmidt said wearing masks and goggles and eating apart from his coworkers isolated him.

Disney employees showed little public resistance to Disney’s vaccine mandate. Around 30 people protested the requirement outside Walt Disney World in September 2021, though an organizer said “hundreds” more were too scared to speak out. Disney’s union leaders agreed with the requirement, with one calling it “the best way to protect all of us.”

But resistance to the defunct policy persists in court.

Former Hollywood Studios food service worker Tamara Wolverton filed a separate discrimination lawsuit in U.S. District Court on Dec. 21 saying she chose not to be vaccinated for COVID-19 because it was “contrary to biblical teachings and her faith.” Disney fired her for insubordination after she refused to wear a mask for the same reason, it read.

She claimed she requested an exemption from the vaccine mandate on Oct. 4, 2021, and Disney did not acknowledge it until March 2022, violating state law.

She sued under the Civil Rights Act and the Florida Private Whistleblower Act. Wolverton is seeking a jury trial for compensation for lost wages and benefits, various damages and to be reinstated to a comparable position to her former job or front pay, records show.

Disney has yet to respond to her allegations in court. Wolverton’s lawyer did not respond to a request for comment.