Dealing With Religious Objections to a COVID-19 Vaccine Requirement

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By Kathleen J. Jennings (kjj@wimlaw.com)

In our discussions of rules mandating COVID-19 vaccines, we’ve mentioned the two possible exemptions to a vaccine requirement: disability and religion. Let’s break down the religious exemption.

Under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, a covered employer is required to “reasonably accommodate” an employee’s sincerely held religious beliefs or practices, unless such an accommodation would create an “undue hardship” for its business.

EEOC guidance explains that the definition of religion is broad and protects beliefs, practices, and observances with which the employer may be unfamiliar. Therefore, the employer should ordinarily assume that an employee’s request for religious accommodation is based on a sincerely held religious belief, practice, or observance. However, if an employee requests a religious accommodation, and an employer is aware of facts that provide an objective basis for questioning either the religious nature or the sincerity of a particular belief, practice, or observance, the employer would be justified in requesting additional supporting information. As an example: if an employee has always taken a flu shot, but then claims that they have a religious objection to a COVID-19 vaccine, that is objective evidence that the religious objection to the COVID-19 vaccine is not sincere.

If an employee makes an objection to the vaccine based upon a religion that you have never heard of, it is important not to dismiss the employee or his/her stated religion out of hand or make any negative comments about them. In other words–don’t buy yourself a claim of religious discrimination or harassment. On the other hand, don’t be afraid to do some research into any unknown religion.

If an employer determines that a religious objection to the COVID-19 vaccine is sincere, then the employer must determine whether it can reasonably accommodate the unvaccinated employee. Under Title VII, an employer should thoroughly consider all possible reasonable accommodations for religious accommodation for Covid-19 vaccination requirements, including telework and reassignment. Other employee accommodations include: wearing a face mask; working a modified shift; and being periodically tested for Covid-19.

As with reasonable accommodation requests made pursuant to the ADA, requests for religious accommodations must be analyzed on a case by case basis. Document the request as well as the process of reaching a decision on the requested accommodation.

However, an employer can lawfully reject a requested accommodation if it would cause an undue hardship, which is “more than a trivial cost to its operations.” Applying this standard to COVID-19 vaccination requirements, employers have argued that allowing COVID-19 to spread among employees and the public would be an undue hardship, and therefore, there is no reasonable alternative to vaccination of all employees in jobs where they have contact with other employees or the public, and the spread of COVID-19 cannot be otherwise mitigated.

Pro Tip: employers need to develop a process and designate responsible personnel to handle employee requests for religious exemptions from vaccine requirements.

Kathleen J. Jennings is an attorney licensed to practice law in Georgia and New York. She graduated from Cornell University, College of Arts & Sciences, with distinction and New York University School of Law. She is a principal in the Atlanta office of Wimberly, Lawson, Steckel, Schneider, & Stine, P.C. and defends employers in employment matters, such as sexual harassment, discrimination, Wage and Hour, OSHA, restrictive covenants, and other employment litigation and provides training and counseling to employers in employment matters. She can be contacted at kjj@wimlaw.com.

Copyright 2021 Kathleen Jennings

The materials available at this blog site are for informational purposes only and not for the purpose of providing legal advice. You should contact your attorney to obtain advice with respect to any particular issue or problem. Use of and access to this Web site or any of the e-mail links contained within the site do not create an attorney-client relationship between Kathleen J. Jennings and the user or browser. The opinions expressed at or through this site are the opinions of the individual author.

How To Handle The Employee Who Refuses To Get Vaccinated for COVID-19

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By Kathleen J. Jennings (kjj@wimlaw.com)

Yesterday, the Biden administration announced that the Labor Department will issue a regulation requiring companies with 100 or more employees to ensure their workforces are either “fully vaccinated” or test negative for Covid-19 at least once a week. The regulation will be issued by OSHA, most likely in the form of an Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS). When enforcing the ETS, OSHA could fine noncomplying businesses up to $14,000 per violation. We anticipate that OSHA will issue the ETS in the next few weeks. We also anticipate that there will be challenges made to the ETS and the authority of the federal government to mandate vaccines.

This is in addition to the expansion of the emergency regulations requiring vaccinations for nursing home workers to include hospitals, dialysis facilities, ambulatory surgical settings, and home health agencies, among others, as a condition for participating in the Medicare and Medicaid programs.

The bottom line is that over 80 million private sector workers are expected to be covered by a COVID-19 vaccine mandate. And some of those workers are going to refuse to get vaccinated, mandate or not. How does an employer deal with the employee who refuses to be vaccinated?

First, find out if the employee has a legitimate reason to refuse to be vaccinated. Legitimate reasons are generally limited to medical (supported by documentation) or a sincerely held religious belief. “I don’t believe in vaccines” is not enough to qualify as a sincerely held religious belief.

Second, if there is no legitimate reason for the employee to refuse a vaccine, the employer should clearly communicate the consequences of not becoming fully vaccinated by a specific date. Can that consequence be termination? Absolutely. Can you require the employee to pay for weekly COVID testing? Possibly. Or require unvaccinated employees to pay a surcharge on their health insurance? Yes–at least one major employer is already doing it.

As with any workplace rule, an employer needs to be consistent in its enforcement of the vaccine mandate or risk claims of discrimination.

What complicates the situation is the current labor shortage in a number of industries. Many businesses cannot afford to terminate all vaccine refusers because they already do not have enough workers. But will there be enough COVID-19 testing facilities to meet the needs of employers who need to test unvaccinated employees weekly? That remains to be seen.

This is a very fluid situation, and I will continue to provide updates.

Kathleen J. Jennings is an attorney licensed to practice law in Georgia and New York. She graduated from Cornell University, College of Arts & Sciences, with distinction and New York University School of Law. She is a principal in the Atlanta office of Wimberly, Lawson, Steckel, Schneider, & Stine, P.C. and defends employers in employment matters, such as sexual harassment, discrimination, Wage and Hour, OSHA, restrictive covenants, and other employment litigation and provides training and counseling to employers in employment matters. She can be contacted at kjj@wimlaw.com.

Copyright 2021 Kathleen Jennings

The materials available at this blog site are for informational purposes only and not for the purpose of providing legal advice. You should contact your attorney to obtain advice with respect to any particular issue or problem. Use of and access to this Web site or any of the e-mail links contained within the site do not create an attorney-client relationship between Kathleen J. Jennings and the user or browser. The opinions expressed at or through this site are the opinions of the individual author.

Can An Employer Ask for Proof of COVID Vaccination?

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By Kathleen J. Jennings (kjj@wimlaw.com)

Today, the CDC issued new guidance regarding persons who have been fully vaccinated aganst COVID-19. Now, fully vaccinated people no longer need to wear a mask or physically distance in any setting, except where required by federal, state, local, tribal, or territorial laws, rules, and regulations, including local business and workplace guidance. [People are considered to be fully vaccinated approximately two weeks after receiving the second of a 2 shot series (Pfizer or Moderna), or two weeks after receiving the one J&J shot.]

There are some places where even fully vaccinated should continue to wear masks, such as healthcare settings, public transportation, transportation hubs, homeless shelters, prisons, and jails.

For non-healthcare settings, employers can allow their fully vaccinated employees to stop wearing masks and socially distancing from one another. But how does an employer know which employees have been fully vaccinated, and which have not? Just ask.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commision (EEOC) has issued its own guidance regarding employer inquiries about employee vaccination status. In fact, the EEOC states that it is not only lawful for an employer to ask an employee about his/her vaccination status, but the employer can also require proof of vaccination:

Is asking or requiring an employee to show proof of receipt of a COVID-19 vaccination a disability-related inquiry? 

No.  There are many reasons that may explain why an employee has not been vaccinated, which may or may not be disability-related.  Simply requesting proof of receipt of a COVID-19 vaccination is not likely to elicit information about a disability and, therefore, is not a disability-related inquiry.  However, subsequent employer questions, such as asking why an individual did not receive a vaccination, may elicit information about a disability and would be subject to the pertinent ADA standard that they be “job-related and consistent with business necessity.”  If an employer requires employees to provide proof that they have received a COVID-19 vaccination from a pharmacy or their own health care provider, the employer may want to warn the employee not to provide any medical information as part of the proof in order to avoid implicating the ADA.

What You Should Know About COVID-19 and the ADA, the Rehabilitation Act, and Other EEO Laws

And what about the employee who refuses to disclose his/her vaccination status on the grounds that “HIPAA protects this information?” Unless your business is the employee’s health care provider, this is not a valid excuse. Many people misunderstand the scope of HIPAA and believe it has a greater reach than it really does. HIPAA only applies to what are called ” covered entities.” Essentially, those are health care providers (doctors, hospitals, and pharmacies, for instance), health insurers, and health care clearinghouses (which process medical data). It also covers their “business associates,” or contractors who have to handle medical records in some way to do work for those covered entities.  It does not apply to the average person or to a business outside health care. 

Kathleen J. Jennings is an attorney licensed to practice law in Georgia and New York. She graduated from Cornell University, College of Arts & Sciences, with distinction and New York University School of Law. She is a principal in the Atlanta office of Wimberly, Lawson, Steckel, Schneider, & Stine, P.C. and defends employers in employment matters, such as sexual harassment, discrimination, Wage and Hour, OSHA, restrictive covenants, and other employment litigation and provides training and counseling to employers in employment matters. She can be contacted at kjj@wimlaw.com.

Copyright 2021 Kathleen Jennings

The materials available at this blog site are for informational purposes only and not for the purpose of providing legal advice. You should contact your attorney to obtain advice with respect to any particular issue or problem. Use of and access to this Web site or any of the e-mail links contained within the site do not create an attorney-client relationship between Kathleen J. Jennings and the user or browser. The opinions expressed at or through this site are the opinions of the individual author.

Can You Require Your Employees to Be Vaccinated for COVID-19? Should You?

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By Kathleen Jennings (kjj@wimlaw.com)

An FDA approved vaccine for COVID-19 has arrived, so employers may be wondering whether they can require employees to be vaccinated. The answer is generally yes, but should an employer make vaccines mandatory? Here are some important considerations and exemptions.

Considerations:

  • Vaccines are medical examinations under the ADA and, if they are to be required, must be job-related and consistent with business necessity or justified by a direct threat. It is a non-brainer that healthcare employers should make vaccines mandatory due to the potential exposure of employees to COVID-19. For other businesses, they will need to balance the possibility of exposure, consequences of exposure (how many employee absences at one time can the business tolerate?), and utility of the vaccine. Will a full complement of vaccinated employees allow you to resume business as usual?
  • Know your employees. How will they react to a mandatory vaccine rule? Will they comply? Are they likely to have a political objection to a mandatory vaccine rule? Will they rebel? Will they seek out a union organizer to help them rebel?
  • If vaccines are mandatory, will your workers’ compensation policy cover the side effects of a vaccine if an employee experiences a reaction? Check with your carrier. This will vary state to state.
  • What will OSHA require? Keep an eye on OSHA. If OSHA requires mandatory vaccines as part of an employer’s general duty to provide a safe workplace, then employers don’t have much choice; they’ll need to have a mandatory vaccine rule.
  • What will company leadership do? If the company’s leaders roll up their sleeves and get vaccinated as soon as possible, this will send a message to other employees.
  • Does state law require vaccines?
  • Do you have a collective bargaining agreement? If yes, it must be reviewed before implementing a mandatory vaccine rule. Even if the CBA does not require that the union agree to such a rule, it is generally a good idea to give advance notice to the union before implementing such a rule.

Exemptions:

An employer that implements a rule that requires employees to be vaccinated must build in exemptions for religion and disability.

Religion: An employee may be exempt from taking a required vaccine if vaccination violates a sincerely held religious belief. When deciding whether an employee is seeking an exemption based upon a simple disbelief in vaccination versus a religious objection that is part of a larger belief system, the courts look to the U.S. Supreme Court’s United States v. Seeger decision, which framed the the question to be asked as: “[D]oes the claimed belief occupy the same place in the life of the objector as an orthodox belief in God holds in the life of one clearly qualified for exemption?” Deep stuff, but it basically boils down to the difference between someone who does not believe in vaccination based on statements of media figures or a general distrust of authority, and a Christian Scientist. The first will not be exempt from a vaccination requirement, while the second will be exempt. Note that courts do not look favorably on seeking documentation from a pastor as to the sincerity of a person’s religious beliefs, so do not ask for it.

If an employee is exempt from a vaccination requirement on the ground of a sincerely held religious belief, the employer may need to look at making reasonable accommodations for that employee. In the case of COVID-19, that could look like social distancing and mask requirements in the proximity of the unvaccinated employee, or the employee may work remotely, if the job can be performed remotely.

Disability: Similarly, there may be employees who may be exempt from a vaccination requirement on the basis of a disability. They may have a serious allergy to a component of a vaccine, or they may suffer from a medical condition that could be worsened by a vaccination.

An employer can ask an employee seeking an exemption from a vaccination requirement on the basis of disability for medical documentation to support the exemption. Of course, all medical information must be maintained as confidential in a file separate from the employee’s personnel file. Similar to the situation of the employee exempted by religion, discussed above, the employer may need to provide a reasonable accommodation to the exempted disabled employee.

Now is the time for employers to prepare a vaccine plan as part of a larger COVID-19 strategy.

  • What approach are you going to use: are you going require vaccines for all employees, some employees, or none at all?
  • If you require vaccination, are you prepared to take action, up to including discharge, against those who refuse to get vaccinated and do not qualify for an exemption?
  • Will you offer incentives to convince employees to voluntarily get vaccinated?
  • How will you identify those who are legally exempted from vaccination?
  • What accommodations can you offer to those who are legally exempted from vaccination?

You’ve heard it a million times, but I’ll say it: the current pandemic is an unprecedented situation. The best course is to seek advice from qualified counsel as you move forward.

Kathleen J. Jennings is an attorney licensed to practice law in Georgia and New York. She graduated from Cornell University, College of Arts & Sciences, with distinction and New York University School of Law. She is a principal in the Atlanta office of Wimberly, Lawson, Steckel, Schneider, & Stine, P.C. and defends employers in employment matters, such as sexual harassment, discrimination, Wage and Hour, OSHA, restrictive covenants, and other employment litigation and provides training and counseling to employers in employment matters. She can be contacted at kjj@wimlaw.com.

©2020 Kathleen J. Jennings

The materials available at this blog site are for informational purposes only and not for the purpose of providing legal advice. You should contact your attorney to obtain advice with respect to any particular issue or problem. Use of and access to this Web site or any of the e-mail links contained within the site do not create an attorney-client relationship between Kathleen J. Jennings and the user or browser. The opinions expressed at or through this site are the opinions of the individual author.