With COVID-19 vaccinations becoming widely available and thousands of Americans returning to in-person work, many workers are wondering if they can legally be forced to get a vaccine by their employer. Similarly, employers are curious if they can implement mandatory vaccine policies in an effort to protect their staff. Based on recent EEOC guidelines, the short answer is yes—employers can require employees to get a COVID-19 vaccine. However, employees may still have protections available to them, even when these policies are in place.
ACCOMODATIONS FOR DISABILITIES
Under the Americans with Disability Act, employers are allowed to have “qualification standards” put in place to prevent individuals from posing a direct threat to the health or safety of other workers. This right has certain limitations, however.
For example, if a mandatory vaccine policy tends to discriminate against individuals with a disability, then the employer must show that unvaccinated employees would pose a direct threat. Determining if there is a direct threat depends on whether there is a significant risk of substantial harm to the health or safety of the individual or others. Employers should make an individualized assessment when determining if a direct threat exists. If the unvaccinated employee is likely to expose others to the coronavirus while at work, this would make it likely that a direct threat exists.
Even if this is the case, employers are not allowed to exclude unvaccinated employees from the workplace, unless there are no reasonable accommodations available to eliminate or reduce the risk of spreading the virus. If reasonable accommodations exist, they cannot cause undue hardship on the employer. An accommodation presents undue hardship if it is significantly difficult for the employer to apply or if it is unreasonably expensive. If working virtually is acceptable, it may suffice as a reasonable accommodation. Other reasonable accommodations may include increasing sanitation and personal protective equipment or moving the employee to a less populated work location. Workers may also find temporary solutions under the FMLA.
ACCOMODATIONS FOR RELIGIOUS BELIEFS
Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, religion is also a protected class in American discrimination law. Therefore, employers face certain limitations if an employee’s religion conflicts with mandatory vaccine policies. Once an employer is made aware that an employee’s sincerely held religious belief, practice, or observance prevents them from obtaining a COVID-19 vaccination, they might need to take additional action. In this case, the employer must once again provide any reasonable accommodations available, unless they create undue hardship. It’s recommended that employers assume that any requests for religious accommodations are made in good faith, but employers are allowed to request additional supporting information if they have reason to doubt the employee.
Note that a personal preference to abstain from getting a vaccine likely falls short of legal protection from mandatory vaccine policies. An employee’s refusal to participate in the policy then will likely need to stem from either a disability or a religious belief.
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With years of experience in employment law, our firm can help employers determine if their COVID-19 vaccine policies and return-to-work procedures are compliant with federal, state, and local law. We can also provide counsel to employees who are unsure of their rights as workers, especially when returning back to the workplace. Contact us for a consultation regarding your exact situation today.