On December 16, 2020, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) issued much-anticipated guidance to employers regarding mandatory Covid-19 vaccines in the workplace.
In its new guidance, the EEOC states that it does not consider vaccinations to be “medical examinations”, which require special justification under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). This clears the way for employers to encourage employees to receive vaccinations on a voluntary basis, or to even make employee vaccination a mandatory condition of remaining in or returning to the workplace.
The EEOC did note that the medical screening questions required before employees receive the vaccination may violate employee ADA rights. Thus, any employer mandating vaccination, whether it either (1) administers itself or (2) administers through a contracted-third party must establish that the mandatory vaccination requirement is “job related and consistent with business necessity” for each position for which the employer requires mandatory vaccination.
However, if the employer accepts proof of mandatory vaccination carried out by a third party that does not have a contract with the employer (such as a pharmacy or other health care provider), the employer need not establish that the vaccine requirement is “job related and consistent with business necessity. Employers who accept such proof of vaccination should still not ask for nor accept any other medical information as part of the proof of vaccination.
The EEOC guidelines also make clear that an employee may object to receiving the vaccination due to a disability. In such cases, the employer must enter into an “interactive process” with the employee to explore the nature of the objection and whether a reasonable accommodation may be made to allow the employee to continue working without receiving the vaccination. The employer must provide such a reasonable accommodation to any employee whose disability prevents them from being vaccinated, unless doing so causes an “undue hardship,” which is defined as “significant difficulty or expense.” Examples of a reasonable accommodation could include working remotely, or allowing unvaccinated workers to work under existing COVID protocols (masking, social distancing, etc.).
If an employer believes that a reasonable accommodation is not viable, the employer must be able to prove that the unvaccinated employee poses a “direct threat” causing a “significant risk of substantial harm to the health and safety of the individual or others that cannot be eliminated or reduced by reasonable accommodation.”
An employer is similarly required to accommodate employees who have a sincere religious belief that prevents them from being vaccinated, unless doing so would cause an “undue hardship” upon the employer. With respect to requests for religious accommodations, the “undue hardship” standard differs from, and is less stringent than the standard for a disability, in that it only requires that the employer show that providing an accommodation imposes “more than a de minimis cost or burden on the employer.”
Employers that wish to adopt mandatory vaccination policies may do so, but could be obligated to provide exemptions or accommodations to employees with disabilities, pregnant workers, and employees with religious objections to vaccines.
Employers who find themselves in a position whereby an employee refuses to get vaccinated due to a disability or religious belief should seek the guidance of an experienced employment law attorney.