Her unemployment money ran out long ago, and at 58, Kim Durham is still looking for a job, but she says her faith in God has been strengthened in the 20 months since the Hershey Company fired her for refusing to get a COVID-19 vaccine for religious reasons.
Ms. Durham is one of at least five former Hershey employees currently seeking damages in court for the company’s alleged failure to accommodate their religious beliefs.
It was a good job, close to her Dauphin County, Pennsylvania, home. Ms. Durham was a payment and sourcing analyst, and after working there for six years, she intended to stay in that position until retirement. But in August 2021, Hershey introduced its COVID-19 vaccination policy requiring office staff, but not manufacturing workers or retail workers, to be fully vaccinated by Oct. 4, 2021, and to submit proof of vaccination, a company email shows.
'God Is a Healer'By the time the policy was announced, Ms. Durham had been working remotely for a year and a half.
Hershey announced later in August that it would allow employees subject to the policy to submit a religious or medical accommodation request.
Ms. Durham did the paperwork requesting a religious exemption.
“God made us in His image and made our immune system,” Ms. Durham told The Epoch Times. “God made our bodies to fight every disease out there. God is a healer, so you don't want to inject things in your body to alter that immune system that God has given you.”
On Nov. 1, 2021, Hershey sent a letter to Ms. Durham denying her exemption request by questioning her faith.
“We have not been able to validate that your belief qualifies,” the letter reads. “There is no accommodation available that would enable you to meet our job requirements, or without imposing undue hardship or risking the health and safety of fellow employees, customers, and/or members of the public.”
The letter states that the company expected her to come into compliance with the policy. The letter was signed by “Corporate Employee Relations.”
Ms. Durham sent an email to Corporate Employee Relations asking for more information on why she was denied.
During an interview with Human Resources, an interviewer questioned her about her faith.
“Is he in a position to question my faith? Is The Hershey Company in a position to question my faith? If there was anyone else involved in the decision factor, I would like to know the credentials that those persons hold. For example: [Were] there outside influences such as a religious person, clergyman, priest, etc.?” Ms. Durham's email asked.
“Corporate Employee Relations” responded with an email.
“Your request was denied based on the support you provided regarding your religious belief. There may be reasons why including only providing vague or unclear support for beliefs,” the response reads. “Some areas that might lead to a denial include a very vague request loosely tied to Christianity; or to provide a statement citing vague bible verses related to the purity of the body, body as a temple, and/or need to avoid evil or demonic instruments. Claims for accommodation that mix religion and political, social, or personal philosophies may also include statements include [sic] personal or political statements among their religious objections to the mandate, such as claims about vaccine safety, objections to a ‘vaccine agenda,’ and false allegations about the vaccine approval process. Claims based on political philosophies of preferences may not be protected.”
Ms. Durham’s vaccination status remained the subject of more communications and meetings until the company fired her on Jan. 21, 2022.
“I know so many people that have gone through what I did at Hershey,” Ms. Durham said. “We all had our reasons why we submitted a religious accommodation, but they all boil down to the same thing. I feel that we were all attacked upon. Our faith was attacked.”
She continues to search for work. Losing her job has affected her financially and emotionally. She said she's grateful for her supportive family and that the experience has made her trust God more.
“When you have God in your heart, but you have the naysayers who judge you—we were all judged—all that matters is the strength that you have in your faith. We have to fight this. We have to fight the good fight. And the good fight is our faith. That's why I’m standing up, and I’m standing firm on that,” Ms. Durham said.
She's represented by Jeff Schott, a labor and civil rights attorney at the Scaringi Law Firm in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
Other Employees SuingThe milk chocolate Hershey bar developed in 1900 by Milton S. Hershey has grown into an international snack brand with $11.5 billion in assets as of the quarter ending June 30. The company, based in Hershey, Pennsylvania, manufactures Hershey's Kisses, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, Kit Kat, Almond Joy, Twizzlers, Ice Breakers, Milk Duds, Whoppers, York Peppermint Patties, Heath, Rolos, Bubble Yum, Cadbury, Good and Plenty, Jolly Rancher, Dots Pretzels, Skinny Pop, and Pirate’s Booty.
The company didn't respond to a request for comment for this story.
Thomas Szeltner, senior manager of retail development, had worked for Hershey in Pennsylvania for more than 30 years. The vaccine requirement conflicted with his faith, which calls for respecting the sanctity of life, including opposing any form of abortion. Yet aborted baby cells were used in the development of COVID-19 vaccines. Mr. Szeltner submitted a religious exemption request to Hershey in September 2021, together with supporting literature, a personal statement, and a statement from the priest of his church, court papers show. Less than a month later, Hershey denied his religious accommodation request, saying it would cause the company undue hardship.
Mr. Szeltner was mostly working from home. He sometimes traveled for work and interacted with Hershey’s retail employees, who weren't subject to the mandate, and he questioned in a statement to the company how his failure to get a vaccine threatened the health and safety of others to the point of creating an undue burden.
Hershey fired Mr. Szeltner on Jan. 21, 2022, and offered a small sum of money if he signed an agreement to waive any legal claims he might have against the company. He declined.
As of Dec. 1, 2022, Mr. Szeltner would have been retirement eligible, entitling him to certain monetary benefits and ongoing fringe benefits, regardless of whether he actually retired.
"[Hershey] intentionally designated [Mr. Szeltner’s] end of employment as a voluntary resignation or resignation without good cause, allowing [Hershey] to avoid paying Plaintiff the 52 weeks of severance pay to which he was entitled under [Hershey’s] employment policies given his 30 years of employment,” court papers read. "[Hershey’s] intentional designation of [Mr. Szeltner’s] end of employment as a voluntary resignation or resignation without good cause interfered with [Mr. Szeltner’s] ability to obtain unemployment compensation benefits.”
And termination, just 10 months shy of his retirement eligibility date, caused the loss of benefits, including a substantial bonus for 2021 that came due shortly after he was fired, plus lost wages, employment benefits, retirement benefits, and severance benefits.
Mr. Szeltner is represented by attorney Lindsay O’Neil of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, who told The Epoch Times that she doesn't comment on active litigation.
Another attorney, Andrea Shaw of Carlisle, Pennsylvania, represents three Hershey employees: Benjamin Stoffel, senior director of U.S. convenience; Cheryl Malovic, a senior sourcing specialist for marketing; and Jennifer Gurdock, customer sales executive. Each requested religious accommodations from COVID-19 vaccines and was refused. All three had been working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“On or about March 4, 2022, just a few weeks after terminating Plaintiffs Malovic and Stoffel and prior to terminating Plaintiff Gurdock, Hershey updated their COVID policy to allow unvaccinated employees to enter the offices if they met certain accommodation measures,” The court papers read. “Those accommodation measures were never offered to any of the Plaintiffs in response to their requests for accommodation.”
These cases are just coming to court now because employees claiming discrimination must first file a Charge of Discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission and get a “Right to Sue” letter. That can take a year or more.
“This country was based on Christianity. We have God-given rights. We should not be told what to do with our body just to go to work,” Ms. Durham said. “Our rights are from God and not from a company.”