Illinois Gives Employers Greater Authority to Impose COVID-19 Rules

By Jennifer Schilling and Victoria Vanderschaaf © Littler Mendelson November 22, 2021
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Office workers wearing masks and distancing

On Nov. 8, Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed SB 1169, which amends the Illinois Health Care Right of Conscience Act to clarify that the act was not intended to apply to COVID-19 requirements. The amendment therefore gives employers greater authority to impose COVID-19 requirements as a condition of employment. The amendment is simply a declaration of existing law and should not be understood as a new enactment or vaccine mandate.

The Health Care Right of Conscience Act was first enacted in 1977 to shield medical professionals from adverse consequences should they refuse to perform medical procedures, such as abortion, because of religious or moral beliefs. Employees have recently used the act to skirt COVID-19 vaccine or testing mandates.

The pre-amended law broadly states:  

It is the public policy of the State of Illinois to respect and protect the right of conscience of all persons who refuse to obtain, receive or accept, or who are engaged in, the delivery of, arrangement for, or payment of health care services and medical care.

The act's definition of "health care" includes testing, which has added to the uncertainty of whether it can bar employers from mandating COVID-19 vaccination or testing. With the passage of Senate Bill 1169, the Illinois legislature has put this ambiguity to rest. As noted, the amendment adds language to explain the act does not apply to COVID-19 obligations. Specifically, the amendment provides that it is not a violation of the act to enforce COVID-19 measures or requirements through "terminating employment or excluding individuals from a school, place of employment, or public or private premises in response to noncompliance."

It is important for employers to remember, however, that employees can still cite to the federal exemptions for health and religious reasons. Employers should also be wary that their employees may continue to cite to the act or take legal action until the amendment becomes effective on June 1, 2022.

Jennifer Schilling and Victoria Vanderschaaf are attorneys with Littler Mendelson in Chicago. © 2021 Littler Mendelson. All rights reserved. Reposted with permission. 


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