By Jonathan Young
The COVID-19 pandemic has led to a slew of questions for business owners. One of the big remaining questions is whether employers will be able to require employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19.
Mandatory vaccination requirements exist in workplaces today. Healthcare workers, for example, may be very familiar with vaccine requirements. The law does permit employers to implement vaccination programs, although there are exceptions for employees.
The highly contagious nature of COVID-19 may lead employers to strongly consider vaccination programs. If an employer does institute a mandatory program, an exception must be granted for religious reasons. Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, employers would have to provide an accommodation to an employee who objected because of a sincerely held religious belief. Employers could deny a request for accommodation from an employee if the employer determined the lack of a vaccine could create an undue hardship, such as harm to others.
An employee with a covered disability may also request an accommodation under the American with Disabilities Act. As with the Civil Rights Act, there is an undue hardship provision that an employer could pursue.
Predicting rules for mandatory vaccination programs is purely speculative. As the reality of an approved vaccine gets closer, federal and state agencies would likely issue guidance on vaccinations. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is one of the agencies that can be expected to rule on vaccinations. For comparison, the EEOC has emphasized that employees may be entitled to exemptions from mandatory flu shot programs.
As work continues on a COVID-19 vaccine, now is the time for employers to think about what steps they will take once an approved vaccine is available. Here are three actions that employers can take now:
- Monitor all guidance, regulations, and law from federal and state authorities on a COVID-19 vaccine
- Determine whether a mandatory vaccination program is appropriate for a business. Factors should include whether employees will be working remotely and other options for minimizing risk.
- If considering a mandatory program, develop a process for receiving and addressing requests from employees for accommodations.
Jonathan Young is a Dischell Bartle Dooley partner. He specializes in employment law, litigation, workers’ compensation, and personal injury matters.
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