What You Need to Know About Workplace Vaccination Requirements
Now that the first round of COVID-19 vaccines is being distributed, many of people are wondering how to ensure that their employees are vaccinated as soon as possible. Below are answers to some of the most common questions employers have about workplace vaccine requirements. If you would like specific advice about instituting a vaccine requirement for your employees, please contact an employment lawyer.
Can I require that my employees take the vaccine when it becomes available?
Yes. In general, you can have a requirement that your employees take a publicly available vaccine. However, employers with 15 or more employees are subject to federal laws prohibiting certain employment practices, including requirements that screen out individuals with disabilities and denying requests for reasonable accommodations based on religious beliefs. Many states have equivalent laws that cover smaller employers. Most employers must try to make reasonable accommodations for employees whose disability or religious beliefs prevent them from meeting workplace requirements.
How can I respond if an employee claims to be unable to take the vaccine because of a disability or sincerely held religious belief?
You must determine whether you are required to make a reasonable accommodation for the employee. Unless an employer can demonstrate that a reasonable accommodation is not possible without undue hardship and that an unvaccinated employee poses a direct threat to the health of others, the employer must make a reasonable accommodation for an employee’s disability. An employer also must make a reasonable accommodation for an employee’s religious belief if the accommodation is possible without undue hardship.
In either case, an employer may exclude from the workplace an unvaccinated employee for whom the employer is not required to make reasonable accommodation.
What does reasonable accommodation mean for workplace vaccination requirements?
Whether you can make a reasonable accommodation without undue hardship will depend on the nature of the workforce and the employee’s position. In determining whether an exemption causes undue hardship, you should consider whether the employee’s duties require frequent contact with the public or other individuals whose vaccination rates are unknown and the cost to the business of reducing such contact. Employers may also rely on CDC and OSHA guidance to determine whether an accommodation is possible without undue hardship.
Federal regulations direct employers to determine whether a direct threat exists based on the likelihood and extent of the risk. Like undue hardship, whether your employee constitutes a “direct threat” will depend on the employee’s duties and the progress of the pandemic. As infection rates fall, the likelihood that an unvaccinated employee will constitute a direct threat to others in the workplace may fall.
Employment protections based on religious belief are narrower than protections based on disability. An employer still must provide a reasonable accommodation upon request. However, undue hardship in the religious belief context means that the accommodation would have a more than trivial burden on the employer, such as forcing the employer to treat employees unequally. Employers may not be required to make an accommodation for religious belief if the accommodation is unfair to other employees or forces you to incur significant costs.
As the COVID-19 vaccines become more available, employers will certainly face more pressing questions about requiring employees get the vaccine.
Naturally, many of these questions are novel, and there are complex legal issues employers need to consider. There are also practical considerations – what will the impact be on morale of requiring (or not requiring) employees to provide proof of vaccination. Employers with specific questions should seek guidance from an attorney with experience in employment matters.