Page 1 of 1
Federal and state anti-discrimination agencies have issued guidance for employers that want to require workers to get a COVID-19 vaccine—but at least one lawsuit has claimed that employers can’t mandate a vaccine that is approved only for emergency use. While this argument might not hold up in court, employers should be aware of the risks associated with a vaccine mandate.
When employees refuse a vaccine, the employer should address their concerns and explain the reasons why the company has adopted a mandatory vaccination policy. An open dialogue and education will be key, as will following FDA updates in this regard and consulting with legal counsel.
There are many reasons why an employee may be unwilling to receive a COVID-19 vaccine, and employers may need to explore reasonable accommodations, particularly with employees who have disability-related and religious objections to being vaccinated.
Distribution of COVID-19 vaccines has been issued under the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA’s) Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) rather than the FDA’s usual processes. But the FDA has said that the vaccine has met its “rigorous, scientific standards for safety, effectiveness and manufacturing quality” and that “its known and potential benefits clearly outweigh its known and potential risks.”
An employee who recently filed a lawsuit challenging an employer’s vaccine mandate argued that the EUA states that people must have “the option to accept or refuse administration of the [vaccine]” and be informed “of the consequence, if any, of refusing administration of the [vaccine] and of the alternatives to the [vaccine] that are available and of their benefits and risks.”
Although the employee in the case works in the public sector, many employment relationships in the private sector are at-will, which means either the employer or the worker can terminate the employment for any lawful reason. An employer that mandates a vaccine may argue the consequence of refusing a vaccine is being fired.
“Consensus in the legal community has been that, at least in the private sector, employers may require at-will employees to be vaccinated, subject to accommodations that may be required for medical or religious reasons,” said Kevin Troutman, an attorney with Fisher Phillips in Houston, and Richard Meneghello, an attorney with Fisher Phillips in Portland, Ore.
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has issued guidance indicating that employers generally can mandate COVID-19 vaccinations. “The EEOC specifically addressed vaccinations that are authorized or approved by the FDA,” noted Anne-Marie Vercruysse Welch, an attorney with Clark Hill in Birmingham, Mich.
The California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) also recently said that the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) generally allows employers to mandate vaccines that have been approved by the FDA. The DFEH specially noted that the FDA has authorized and recommended three COVID-19 vaccines—all of which have been authorized under an EUA.
But vaccine mandates may still be risky for employers. It is possible that employees who are terminated for refusing to receive a vaccine authorized by the FDA under an EUA could try to pursue claims for wrongful termination in violation of public policy. The viability of such claims will depend on applicable state law regarding a potential public policy exception to at-will employment and how courts—state and federal—construe the EUA wording.
The regulatory framework is still unclear and a number of states are considering legislation that would prohibit employers from requiring employees to receive a COVID-19 vaccine. If these bills become law, the uncertainty regarding the EUA issue will become moot in those states, at least as of the time the laws go into effect.
The EEOC issued guidance stating that employees may be exempt from employer vaccination mandates under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII) and other workplace laws.
California’s guidance noted that the FEHA prohibits employers from discriminating against employees or job applicants based on a protected characteristic—such as age, race or sex—and requires employers to explore reasonable accommodations related to a worker’s disability or sincerely held religious beliefs.
“If an employee has a medical condition or sincerely held religious belief that would prevent them from being able to be vaccinated, their employer must go through the interactive process to determine if a reasonable accommodation is available,” Welch said. She recommended that employers have accommodation forms available to employees to begin the interactive process and document the steps the employer took to attempt to arrive at a reasonable accommodation.
Accommodations could take various forms, depending upon the employee’s job and setting. Employers may offer remote work, change the physical workspace, revise practices or provide a leave of absence. In each situation, the employer must determine whether an accommodation would enable the employee to safely perform the essential functions of their job.
Some employees might refuse to receive a vaccine for reasons that aren’t legally protected, such as a general distrust of vaccines. Employers need to be very thoughtful as they consider whether to mandate vaccines because employers may have to fire a material portion of their workforce who refuse to be vaccinated or allow some employees to ignore a company policy–which can lead to discrimination risks and employee morale issues.
“Most employers are encouraging vaccination rather than requiring it,” Welch observed.
Coburn recommended that employers focus on the following measures to encourage employees to receive a vaccination:
Employers that want to offer incentives should be mindful of wellness program limitations and offer alternative ways for employees who cannot get vaccinated to receive the incentives, Coburn noted.
Employers wanting to require workers to get a COVID-19 vaccination should be prepared to respond to workers’ concerns and make reasonable accommodations under federal and state law.
Mandating vaccinations could have benefits for employers and employees alike. Vaccinations will likely decrease the risk of spreading the virus in the workplace, reduce absenteeism, increase productivity and decrease employee health care costs. On the other hand, employees may react poorly to mandatory vaccination policies.
“Most employers are choosing to inform, educate and encourage their employees to consider the vaccine,” observed Katherine Dudley Helms, an attorney with Ogletree Deakins in Columbia, S.C. However, she noted, there may be industries where vaccination is critical and a mandatory approach makes sense.
“Even then, employees should be informed and educated as to why the business felt that approach was necessary,” she said. “If the employer has made the vaccine mandatory, it needs to be sure that it is ready to terminate or otherwise address employees who refuse and who are not entitled to a reasonable accommodation.”
Employers that require vaccinations may face discrimination claims if they deny accommodation requests based on medical or religious objections.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) issued guidance stating that employees may be exempt from employer vaccination mandates under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII) and other workplace laws.
Under the ADA, an employer can have a workplace policy that includes “a requirement that an individual shall not pose a direct threat to the health or safety of individuals in the workplace.”
If a vaccination requirement screens out a worker with a disability, however, the employer must show that unvaccinated employees would pose a “direct threat” due to a “significant risk of substantial harm to the health or safety of the individual or others that cannot be eliminated or reduced by reasonable accommodation.”
If an employee who cannot be vaccinated poses a direct threat to the workplace, the employer must consider whether a reasonable accommodation can be made, such as allowing the employee to work remotely or take a leave of absence.
Title VII requires an employer to accommodate an employee’s sincerely held religious belief, practice or observance, unless it would cause an undue hardship on the business. Courts have said that an “undue hardship” is created by an accommodation that has more than a “de minimis,” or very small, cost or burden on the employer.
The definition of religion is broad and protects religious beliefs and practices that may be unfamiliar to the employer. Therefore, the employer “should ordinarily assume that an employee’s request for religious accommodation is based on a sincerely held religious belief,” according to the EEOC.
Helene Hechtkopf, an attorney with Hoguet Newman Regal & Kenney in New York City, said an employer will need to evaluate the employee’s job functions, whether there is an alternative job that the employee could do that would make vaccination less critical and how important it is to the employer’s operations that the employee be vaccinated.
Employers that mandate vaccines will have more issues to consider beyond providing reasonable accommodations. For instance, can an employer be held liable if a worker has an adverse reaction to the vaccine?
A severe allergic reaction to the vaccination is possible but rare, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
“If an employer mandates vaccines, there is likely coverage for injury or illness under the employer’s workers’ compensation policy, but employers should check with their carriers,” Hechtkopf said. “If an employer merely encourages employees to obtain a vaccine, coverage under workers’ compensation policies may not be available.”
Employers must also be careful about collecting medical information. “If an employer requires employees to provide proof that they have received a COVID-19 vaccination from a pharmacy or their own healthcare provider, the employer cannot mandate that the employee provide any medical information as part of the proof,” according to the CDC.
Additionally, Helms noted, a number of states are contemplating legislation that would prohibit businesses from making the COVID-19 vaccination mandatory. So employers will have to monitor the rules in each applicable location.
Employers that plan to require employees to get a vaccine should develop a written policy, Hechtkopf said.
If a significant portion of the workforce refuses to comply with a vaccine mandate, the employer will be put in the very difficult position of either adhering to the mandate and terminating the employees or deviating from the mandate for certain employees, noted Brett Coburn, an attorney with Alston & Bird in Atlanta. This can increase the risk of discrimination claims.
“Rather than implementing mandates that could lead to such difficult decisions, employers may wish to focus on steps they can take to encourage and incentivize employees to get vaccinated,” he said. For example, employers may want to:
Regardless of whether the policy is for mandatory or voluntary vaccinations, Helms said, employers should communicate clearly and often with the workforce as to why the company believes that vaccinations are important and let employees know that other COVID-19 precautions remain in place.