In November, pharmaceutical companies Pfizer, AstraZeneca and Moderna announced that they had each developed a coronavirus vaccine. This is, obviously, wonderful news. Under the current vaccine distribution plan for the State of Tennessee, residents and employees of nursing homes and long-term care facilities will receive the vaccine first, followed by first responders, low exposure healthcare workers and people with two (2) or more high-risk comorbidities.
These vaccines will likely not be available to the general public for several months. Many people will take the vaccine voluntarily. But as an employer, can you require your employees to be vaccinated against the coronavirus as a condition of employment?
The answer is likely yes, with some exceptions. The EEOC has not yet issued any guidance on this issue. However, the EEOC has previously issued guidance on whether employers can require all employees to take the flu vaccine. With respect to the flu vaccine, the EEOC states that an employer can require an employee to be vaccinated unless the employee should be exempted because of an ADA disability or his or her sincerely-held religious beliefs.
If the employee has an ADA disability that prevents the employee from taking the flu vaccine, the employer must analyze whether it can reasonably accommodate this disability without undue hardship. For example, can the employer reasonably accommodate the employee’s disability and address the health and safety concern by having the employee wear a mask or PPE at all times when the employee is around others? If this reasonable accommodation will not create an undue hardship, then the employer must provide that reasonable accommodation.
An employee’s sincerely-held religious belief, practice or observance may also prevent that employee from taking a vaccine, whether it is the flu or the coronavirus vaccine. For those employees, the employer must also determine whether it can provide a reasonable accommodation, such as the mask or PPE requirement, or working remotely, that will not impose an undue hardship on the employer. The EEOC goes on to state that “generally, ADA-covered employers should consider simply encouraging employees to get the influenza vaccine rather than requiring them to take it.”
Given that COVID 19 appears to be more deadly to some and more contagious than the flu, the EEOC might change its position on the issue. Certain industries may also have obligations to vaccinate employees, such as those employers in the healthcare industry. For now, most employers should assume that they will not be able to require vaccinations for those employees who have an ADA disability or sincerely-held religious belief that prohibits vaccination and will have to consider whether those employees can be reasonably accommodated without undue hardship.
Employers considering mandatory vaccination policies should review relevant EEOC, CDC and any state guidance and consult legal counsel to ensure that they meet their goal of protecting the health and safety of their workforce without violating applicable laws.