Ask HR: Can Companies Mandate the COVID-19 Vaccine for Employees?

By Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., SHRM-SCP January 22, 2021
Ask HR: Can Companies Mandate the COVID-19 Vaccine for Employees?

SHRM President and Chief Executive Officer Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., SHRM-SCP, is answering HR questions as part of a series for USA Today. 

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


With a COVID-19 vaccine now rolling out, can employers mandate that their workforce gets one?

Johnny C. Taylor, Jr.: Thanks for asking, as this is the question on everyone's mind—from employers to workers. In fact, nearly two-thirds of organizations say they will encourage employees to get the COVID-19 vaccine, and 64 percent of working Americans are likely to get the vaccine once it becomes available. This number jumps to more than three-quarters if their employer mandates it.   

As for requiring the vaccine, the short answer is yes, a company could mandate that their employees get the COVID-19 vaccine. In December, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) issued guidance stating employers could encourage or possibly require COVID-19 vaccinations for workers. However, they must comply with current workplace laws—namely the Americans with Disabilities Act and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Let's break this down a little bit. Based on EEOC guidance, some federal and state laws allow exemptions protecting the rights of employees who are not able to receive the vaccine, including those with a disability or a sincerely held religious belief. In this case, an employer may make a reasonable accommodation—such as remote work or moving the employee to an area that is not consumer-facing. 

That said, if an employee cannot get vaccinated for these reasons, and reasonable accommodation isn't possible, an employer could exclude the employee from physically entering the workplace. But importantly, this doesn't mean an individual can be automatically terminated. Employers will need to determine if any other rights apply under the EEO laws or other federal, state and local rules.

The important thing to keep in mind here is that employers are doing their best to provide a reasonably safe work environment. Most of us haven't managed through a pandemic or any issue that has had such a profound impact on the workplace.

At the end of the day, transparent communication between employers and employees is crucial to ensure everyone is on the same page and staying healthy at work and at home.

If you have questions about the vaccine protocol for your company, talk to HR. They likely have a plan in place regarding a vaccination policy and will communicate their goals and priorities to the larger organization. Stay safe!


If an employee's spouse already has health insurance coverage, can the employer request that the spouse not be on the employee's coverage? —Marilee

Johnny C. Taylor, Jr.: Accessible, affordable health care is a high priority for employers—especially as the country addresses a major public health crisis. The answer to your question truly depends on where you work and how large your organization is.

Under the Affordable Care Act, employers with 50 or more employees are required to offer affordable health care coverage to employees and their dependents. If they do not offer health insurance, they could face financial penalties.

However, if an employee's spouse can access health coverage through his or her own employer, organizations can take measures to encourage the spouse to utilize that other plan.

For example, some employers choose to implement a "spousal surcharge"—a fee to enroll a working spouse who otherwise could be covered through his or her own employer. This fee would generally be waived, however, if a spouse is unemployed or not eligible to enroll in another employer plan.

Another option is to allow spouses to enroll in the company plan as secondary coverage as long as they also enroll in their own employer's plan.

I will say this, though: Before implementing any cost-saving plans, employers should carefully examine their state laws. Some have regulations that limit the surcharge plans. Organizations should also consult with legal counsel and with their state insurance commissioner for any laws, regulations or public policy issues that may affect cost-saving plans.

Employer-sponsored health insurance provides health benefits to more than 181 million Americans. That said, it's critical for employers to provide health care benefits that will keep employees, families and businesses healthy. Be well!



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