Late last year, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (the FDA) issued the first approvals for a COVID-19 vaccine. Shortly thereafter, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (the EEOC) issued guidance on the interplay between federal anti-discrimination law and vaccine-related issues, including the permissibility of mandatory employer vaccination policies. The below FAQs address some of the more salient questions surrounding such policies and their implementation, as well as other workplace issues triggered by the vaccine. There are undeniably more questions than answers at present with respect to vaccine-related workplace issues. Before taking any material workplace action with respect to the vaccine, therefore, please consult with a Reed Smith employment lawyer. We also have a downloadable version of our FAQs.
Q: Can employers adopt a mandatory employee vaccination policy?
A: Generally speaking, yes. In guidance issued in late May 2021, the EEOC took the position that mandatory vaccination policies are generally permissible under federal anti-discrimination laws. Just a few weeks later, in June 2021, a federal court – in the first ruling on this issue – echoed this sentiment in concluding that such policies are generally permissible. The following month, the U.S. Department of Justice issued a detailed memo reaching the same conclusion.
The two primary exceptions to the general permissibility of employer-mandated vaccination policies are for employees with disabilities and for those with a sincerely held religious belief, practice, or custom. If an employee refuses to be vaccinated and objects to a mandatory vaccination policy on one of these grounds, the employer must engage in the so-called interactive process with the employee and, subject to the “undue hardship” standards discussed below, provide the employee with a reasonable accommodation in line with applicable law.
In addition to legally required accommodations, the EEOC also cautions employers to be cognizant of any potential disparate impact created by a vaccine mandate.
Q: Are there state or local laws that address mandatory COVID-19 vaccination policies?
A: Employers must pay attention to state laws in the jurisdiction(s) where they operate. Several states have introduced legislation attempting to limit private employers’ ability to mandate COVID-19 vaccines. To date, such efforts have been without success other than in Montana.
Q: If an employer adopts a mandatory employee vaccination policy, how should it respond to an employee who indicates that they are unable to receive a COVID-19 vaccination because of a disability or a sincerely held religious belief, practice, or custom?
A: As noted, the employer must engage in an interactive process with the employee. When an employee objects to vaccination, they are requesting an accommodation under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII) (for a sincerely held religious belief, practice, or custom) or the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) (for a disability). The employer must provide a reasonable accommodation unless the accommodation would pose an undue hardship. Undue hardship is defined under Title VII as an accommodation that poses a “more than de minimis” cost or burden. For the ADA, undue hardship is more onerous to establish and is defined as creating significant difficulty or expense for the employer. Continue Reading