Can an Employee Refuse to Get a COVID-19 Vaccine?

Lisa Nagele-Piazza, J.D., SHRM-SCP By Lisa Nagele-Piazza, J.D., SHRM-SCP February 25, 2021
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man getting vaccine

Employers wanting to require workers to get a COVID-19 vaccination should be prepared to respond to workers' concerns and make reasonable accommodations under federal and state law.

Mandating vaccinations could have benefits for employers and employees alike. Vaccinations will likely decrease the risk of spreading the virus in the workplace, reduce absenteeism, increase productivity and decrease employee health care costs, said Elisa Lintemuth, an attorney with Dykema in Grand Rapids, Mich. On the other hand, she added, employees may react poorly to mandatory vaccination policies.

According to research by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), 60 percent of U.S. workers said they will probably or definitely get the vaccine once it becomes available to them. However, 28 percent of respondents said they are willing to lose their jobs if their employer requires the COVID-19 vaccine.

"Most employers are choosing to inform, educate and encourage their employees to consider the vaccine," observed Katherine Dudley Helms, an attorney with Ogletree Deakins in Columbia, S.C. However, she noted, there may be industries where vaccination is critical and a mandatory approach makes sense.

"Even then, employees should be informed and educated as to why the business felt that approach was necessary," she said. "If the employer has made the vaccine mandatory, it needs to be sure that it is ready to terminate or otherwise address employees who refuse and who are not entitled to a reasonable accommodation."

Consider Accommodations

Employers that require vaccinations may face discrimination claims if they deny accommodation requests based on medical or religious objections, Lintemuth noted. 

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) issued guidance stating that employees may be exempt from employer vaccination mandates under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII) and other workplace laws.

Under the ADA, an employer can have a workplace policy that includes "a requirement that an individual shall not pose a direct threat to the health or safety of individuals in the workplace."

If a vaccination requirement screens out a worker with a disability, however, the employer must show that unvaccinated employees would pose a "direct threat" due to a "significant risk of substantial harm to the health or safety of the individual or others that cannot be eliminated or reduced by reasonable accommodation." 

If an employee who cannot be vaccinated poses a direct threat to the workplace, the employer must consider whether a reasonable accommodation can be made, such as allowing the employee to work remotely or take a leave of absence.  

Title VII requires an employer to accommodate an employee's sincerely held religious belief, practice or observance, unless it would cause an undue hardship on the business. Courts have said that an "undue hardship" is created by an accommodation that has more than a "de minimis," or very small, cost or burden on the employer.

The definition of religion is broad and protects religious beliefs and practices that may be unfamiliar to the employer. Therefore, the employer "should ordinarily assume that an employee's request for religious accommodation is based on a sincerely held religious belief," according to the EEOC.

Helene Hechtkopf, an attorney with Hoguet Newman Regal & Kenney in New York City, said an employer will need to evaluate the employee's job functions, whether there is an alternative job that the employee could do that would make vaccination less critical and how important it is to the employer's operations that the employee be vaccinated.

More Considerations

Employers that mandate vaccines will have more issues to consider beyond providing reasonable accommodations. For instance, can an employer be held liable if a worker has an adverse reaction to the vaccine?

A severe allergic reaction to the vaccination is possible but rare, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

"If an employer mandates vaccines, there is likely coverage for injury or illness under the employer's workers' compensation policy, but employers should check with their carriers," Hechtkopf said. "If an employer merely encourages employees to obtain a vaccine, coverage under workers' compensation policies may not be available."

Employers must also be careful about collecting medical information. "If an employer requires employees to provide proof that they have received a COVID-19 vaccination from a pharmacy or their own healthcare provider, the employer cannot mandate that the employee provide any medical information as part of the proof," according to the CDC.

Additionally, Helms noted, a number of states are contemplating legislation that would prohibit businesses from making the COVID-19 vaccination mandatory. So employers will have to monitor the rules in each applicable location.

Encouraging Vaccinations

Employers that plan to require employees to get a vaccine should develop a written policy, Hechtkopf said.

If a significant portion of the workforce refuses to comply with a vaccine mandate, the employer will be put in the very difficult position of either adhering to the mandate and terminating the employees or deviating from the mandate for certain employees, noted Brett Coburn, an attorney with Alston & Bird in Atlanta. This can increase the risk of discrimination claims.

"Rather than implementing mandates that could lead to such difficult decisions, employers may wish to focus on steps they can take to encourage and incentivize employees to get vaccinated," he said. For example, employers may want to:

  • Develop vaccination education campaigns.
  • Make obtaining the vaccine as easy as possible for employees.
  • Cover any costs that might be associated with getting the vaccine.
  • Provide incentives to employees who get vaccinated.
  • Provide paid time off for employees to get the vaccine and recover from any potential side effects.

Regardless of whether the policy is for mandatory or voluntary vaccinations, Helms said, employers should communicate clearly and often with the workforce as to why the company believes that vaccinations are important and let employees know that other COVID-19 precautions remain in place.

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