Ask HR: Can I Get Fired for Refusing Vaccinations?

By Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., SHRM-SCP May 22, 2020
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Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., SHRM-SCP

SHRM President and CEO Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., is answering HR questions as part of a series for USA Today. The questions are submitted by readers, and Taylor's answers below have been edited for length and clarity.

Do you have an HR or work-related question you'd like him to answer? Submit it here.

Question: Can I be fired for not getting the flu shot or other vaccinations? —Anonymous

Johnny C. Taylor, Jr.: I get this question a lot lately because the whole world is searching for a COVID-19 vaccine and employers want to know if they can mandate their employees get it once it becomes available. But the answer is complicated, so bear with me.

Generally speaking, the answer is yes. Your employer can require or mandate a vaccine as a term and condition of employment. 

For decades, health care and education employers have required employees to get the flu shot and show proof of other major vaccinations—such as those for tetanus, polio or measles—since they are in close contact with vulnerable populations like children, the elderly and immunocompromised people. 

I predict, due to the damage COVID-19 has done to lives and livelihoods, we will see many more employers in other sectors make this a requirement. 

That said, there are exemptions under federal and certain state laws protecting the rights of people who wish not to be vaccinated. However, these exceptions require more than an employee stating a generalized belief that vaccines may be harmful. Some exemptions pertain to religious or philosophical views, though there are also medical reasons—such as an underlying condition—that could render certain vaccines out of the question.

You didn't mention if you are personally concerned about required vaccines. But if you are and your job requires vaccinations, you will need to have a conversation with your employer about your refusal, your reasoning and whether an accommodation can be made.

 

Question: I have been working from home for about a month now due to the coronavirus. It was fine at first, but I'm beginning to feel disconnected from my work and my team. How can I ensure that my colleagues and I remain on the same page? Unfortunately, things are not business as usual around here. —Anonymous

Johnny C. Taylor, Jr.: I'm sorry to hear you feel disconnected. Telework may be the new normal for many, but it's certainly not ideal for everyone—especially when it's effectively mandated, rather than freely chosen.

If it's any consolation, you're not alone in your remote-work difficulties. Forty-one percent of U.S. employees feel burned out from work during this pandemic, as many find themselves working longer hours and struggling to stay connected with colleagues.

In fact, it's likely your boss is struggling with the same problem—albeit from a different perspective—as 65 percent of employers say maintaining employee morale has been a challenge.

So, here's my advice: communicate, communicate, communicate.

If you think your team is desynchronized, be sure to let your boss know. Tackling this could mean scheduling weekly meetings to discuss ongoing projects, take care of housekeeping items or even have simple check-ins. Or, there may be a better way to share information by centralizing and organizing the key tasks and projects you're collaborating on.

Missing workplace banter and face-to-face interaction? Set up a video call with a co-worker to talk about managing remote work. He or she may feel disconnected, too, and be happy to hear from you—and might be able to share some remote-work tips. You could start a group online chat about recommended TV shows, books and movies to enjoy during downtime under stay-at-home orders.

Believe me, I understand the difficulties. But, as a radical optimist, I can't help but see the silver lining here.

While we may be more isolated, we're not alone—the struggle is shared by us all. The teams that see that, and come together to create connection, won't merely survive this crisis. They'll come out the other side better because of it.

Stay strong!

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