Iowa Strengthens Medical and Religious Exemptions from Vaccine Policies

Workers fired for refusing vaccines can qualify for unemployment benefits

By Christine Bestor Townsend and Eric L. Mackie © Ogletree Deakins November 10, 2021
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On Oct. 29, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds signed House File 902 into law, a measure that requires Iowa employers with mandatory COVID-19 vaccine policies to waive their requirements for employees who seek vaccination exemptions for medical or religious reasons. The law also permits individuals to qualify for unemployment insurance benefits, even when they have been discharged from employment for refusing to receive COVID-19 vaccines.

Proving the Need for an Exemption

Under the law, an employee seeking an exemption to an employer's mandatory COVID-19 vaccination policy is required only to submit one of the following to his or her employer:

  • Medical exemption request—a statement that the vaccine would be harmful to the health and well-being of the employee or an individual who lives with the employee.
  • Religious exemption request—a statement that receiving the vaccine would "conflict with the tenets and practices of a religion of which the employee is an adherent or member."

While the religious exemption provision does not provide an additional basis for an accommodation request, the medical exemption provision is broader than what the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires.

The new legislation is effective immediately and does not announce penalties for noncompliance. Employees whose employment has been terminated for noncompliance with a COVID-19 vaccination policy will qualify for unemployment benefits.

Key Takeaways

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration issued a new emergency temporary standard (ETS) requiring employers with 100 employees or more to require their employees either to become fully vaccinated or subject to COVID-19 testing at least once per week. It is unclear whether Iowa's new law will conflict with the ETS, given that employers may choose to require employees with exemptions to be tested.

Christine Bestor Townsend is an attorney with Ogletree Deakins in Milwaukee. Eric L. Mackie is an attorney with Ogletree Deakins in Chicago. © 2021 Ogletree Deakins. All rights reserved. Reposted with permission. 

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