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Ask HR: Can Employers Require Employees to Get Flu Shots?

A man in a blue suit posing for a photo.

SHRM President and Chief Executive Officer Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., SHRM-SCP, 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 require my employees to get a flu shot? What if they refuse based on religious or medical reasons? —Anonymous

Johnny C. Taylor, Jr.: Good question. We've all seen the signs in the grocery store and in employee newsletters—flu season will be here before we know it, and I expect it may drum up more anxiety than usual this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In short, the answer to your question depends on your workplace. As an employer, you may be able to require employees to get vaccinated for the flu if getting sick would greatly impact your company. For example, most health care organizations require vaccinations as a condition of employment because of the risk of exposure to people who are in their care.

However, concern and caution over COVID-19 could make employers more likely to encourage flu shots across industries. While workplaces outside of the medical, child care, or elder care fields might have trouble justifying mandatory vaccines such as a flu shot, that doesn't mean an organization can't strongly recommend employees get vaccinated—especially in the middle of a pandemic.

As you allude to, it's important to balance your workplace health and safety concerns with employee rights. This includes taking into consideration employees with disabilities and religious beliefs that might prevent them from getting vaccinated. (See this SHRM Online article on making vaccines mandatory in a pandemic for more information.)

If someone claims a health condition that makes vaccination a health risk, you can ask the employee to sign a consent form allowing you to learn about his or her condition and get proper documentation from the employee's doctor. Additionally, the Americans with Disabilities Act allows employers to require medical documentation of disability.

Stay healthy and be well!


Question: As a remote workforce becomes the norm and as child care facilities start opening up again, do you think employers should start expecting remote employees to have day care arrangements in place versus giving employees the flexibility to care for young kids while also working? —Anonymous

Johnny C. Taylor, Jr.: Candidly, it depends on the employer. Before COVID-19 upended everything, many employers offered telework benefits and expected employees to have child care accommodations in place so they could work productively without disruption.

Juggling a job and kids at home has never been easy. However, this public-health crisis has challenged working parents in ways nobody saw coming. Even if an employer provides child care onsite or a stipend to supplement the costs elsewhere, facilities remain closed across the country. And even if some facilities may have reopened, many parents are leery of dropping their kids off. These factors and others leave parents and guardians between a rock and a hard place.

I hate to say it because we've heard it a billion times by now, but this moment is truly unprecedented. Many employers are doing what they can by coordinating with employees to understand their needs and provide support where possible. In fact, 68 percent of organizations are likely to offer greater flexibility in their work-from-home policies, while 59 percent say child care accommodations will be handled on a case-by-case basis.

In some instances, such as when child care is unavailable for reasons related to COVID-19, some employers can offer emergency paid sick leave and expanded family and medical leave through the Families First Coronavirus Response Act.

As you noted, child care facilities are reopening in certain areas of the country, and some parents have re-established relationships with their day care providers. Others may have family members stepping in to help out.

But if none of these work for you, I recommend talking to HR to find an alternative, such as personal leave, a modified schedule or more-frequent breaks—or perhaps something entirely different and uniquely tailored to you. Ultimately, though, it's up to the employer to decide how to balance employees' child care needs with remote-work policies and practices.

For many, this is uncharted territory. But let's remember: We're in this together. That makes it critical for employers to be not only flexible and agile, but also empathetic and compassionate—especially if an employee can't find a care provider.

Employers and employees alike have displayed an incredible amount of resiliency in navigating these challenges and changes together. So I hope by starting the conversation now, you and your employer can find a balanced solution that works for you both.