With both the Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines already receiving emergency use authorizations from the federal Food and Drug Administration, and more vaccines on their way, millions of Americans have been clamoring to get vaccinated. However, some workers might wonder whether they can be required to get COVID-19 vaccinations by their employers. While there are a few exceptions, employers are generally allowed to institute mandatory vaccination policies.
These types of policies are not new. For years, students have been required to get vaccines before they can enroll in school. Medical staff, nurses, and doctors have likewise been required to follow the vaccination requirements of the health care facilities where they work. However, mandatory vaccination policies are not the norm in many other types of jobs. With the COVID-19 vaccines, however, that might soon change. Here is some information about mandatory vaccination policies at your job from the attorneys at Swartz Swidler.
Legal precedent for mandatory vaccination policies at work
In 2009, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issued guidance that employers are allowed to require employees to get flu vaccines for pandemic preparedness. As people start returning to work during the COVID-19 pandemic, they might wonder whether they can be required by their employers to get the COVID-19 vaccine.
Employers are generally allowed to implement mandatory vaccination policies at their workplaces. However, there are a couple of exceptions. One of the exceptions is under the Americans with Disabilities Act or ADA. If you have a medical condition that prevents you from getting the COVID-19 vaccine, you can request your employer to provide you with reasonable accommodation. Your employer must provide reasonable accommodation to you as long as it will not cause your employer undue financial hardship.
The second exception falls under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. If you have a sincerely held religious belief against vaccinations, you can be excused from getting the COVID-19 vaccine. However, if your opposition to the vaccine is merely personal or political, that will not be a sufficient excuse.
Obligation for employers to keep the workplace safe
Employers must comply with numerous safety regulations to maintain their workplaces in a safe condition for their employees. However, a mandatory vaccination policy for COVID-19 in the workplace can raise some complex issues.
Some employees may have concerns about the safety of COVID-19 vaccines since they have been approved through emergency use authorization instead of the normal, longer process. This may be especially true for workers who have underlying medical conditions. Other employees may simply be opposed to vaccinations in general.
The Occupational Safety and Health Act requires employers to keep their workplaces safe for employees and to correct any known dangerous conditions. Employees also have legal remedies available when their workplaces are not safe. While forcing their employees to get vaccinated might not be popular, employers may feel that they need to do so to fulfill their legal obligations to maintain a safe workplace environment.
Exceptions under the Americans with Disabilities Act
Employers are required under the ADA to provide employees who have recognized disabilities with reasonable accommodations unless doing so would cause undue hardship for the employers. If you have an underlying medical condition, you can ask your employer for accommodation to allow you to avoid taking the COVID-19 vaccine. Your employer would then be required to reasonably look for a different way for you to perform the functions of your job before taking adverse action against you. Some potential reasonable accommodations might include the following:
- Allowing you to work remotely
- Changing your work schedule
- Modifying your workspace
- Providing you with and requiring you to wear PPE
Whether a requested accommodation creates an undue hardship requires a factual analysis that considers your job duties, your employer’s size, your employer’s resources, and how much the accommodation will cost. While accommodations might be possible in most cases, some high-risk jobs, including health care, might make getting vaccinated the sole option. Your medical condition must also be one that is recognized under the ADA.
Exception based on religion under Title VII
If you do not have an underlying medical condition but do have a sincerely held religious belief against being vaccinated, you might qualify for an exception under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This law prohibits employers from discriminating against employees based on sincerely held religious beliefs.
To qualify for this exception, you must prove that your religious belief is sincerely held and would be violated by being required to take a COVID-19 vaccine. If you can prove this, your employer must provide you with reasonable accommodations unless doing so would cause undue hardship. Depending on your job and the facts of your case, decreased production, expenses of your requested accommodations, and the potential endangerment of your coworkers could all be examples of undue hardship.
What should you do if your employer requires you to get a COVID-19 vaccine?
If your employer requires all of the employees in your workplace to get the COVID-19 vaccine, you will need to talk to your employer about any concerns that you have. Your arguments will likely be treated more seriously if they are based on your religion or on a medical disability. If you simply oppose vaccinations because of your political beliefs, however, your arguments are unlikely to be accepted by your employer.
If there are enough employees in your workplace who have safety concerns, your employer might hesitate to implement a mandatory vaccination policy. However, these types of policies might make good sense for many employers in high-risk fields. Others might want to encourage workers to get vaccinated without requiring them to do so. If your employer offers you reasonable accommodations based on your valid disability or religious claim, you should be prepared to accept it. If you do not, your job may be at risk.
Talk to an experienced attorney at Swartz Swidler
The COVID-19 pandemic has created many novel issues in the workplace. If you have questions about your rights, contact Swartz Swidler to schedule a consultation by calling us at 856.685.7420.