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Can my employer require me to get a COVID-19 vaccine?

Yes, generally, according to EEOC guidance. Under most circumstances and subject to limited exceptions, federal law does not prevent your employer from requiring all employees physically entering the workplace to be vaccinated for COVID-19.

We’ve recently been barraged by people alleging that their employer has “illegally” or “unconstitutionally” mandated their employees’ vaccination. These potential clients want us to sue their employers for them. But federal law does not prohibit employers from following the suggestions made by public-health officials, like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That guidance includes vaccination against COVID-19 for all eligible age groups.

In some circumstances, however, Title VII and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) require employers to provide “reasonable accommodations,” or exceptions, for employees with a disability or a sincerely held religious belief, practice, or observance that prevents them from getting vaccinated for COVID-19. You would have to prove the need for accommodations.

But what’s a reasonable accommodation? And what does that mean for me?

A reasonable accommodation is a change made in a work environment to accommodate an individual with a demonstrated need. On that basis, someone who doesn’t get vaccinated due to a disability or a sincerely held religious belief or practice might be entitled to a reasonable accommodation—but only if it doesn’t pose an “undue hardship” on the operation of the employer’s business. For example, as a reasonable accommodation, your employer may (rightfully) ask you to wear a face mask, socially distance yourself from others, work an altered shift, get periodic tests for COVID-19, telework, or accept reassignment. The measures are scientifically proven to save lives.

What if I have a disability?

It depends. For one, your disability has to be covered by the ADA to qualify for reasonable accommodations. The Act defines a disability as "a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities; has a record of such an impairment; or is regarded as having such an impairment." The regulations define "physical or mental impairment" as any physiological illness, disease, or condition. They also cover mental or psychological disorders.

But even under the ADA, your employer can still require individuals with a disability to meet safety-related standards—including COVID-19 vaccination—if the standard is job-related and necessary for the ordinary course of business. If you cannot meet such a safety-related qualification standard because of a disability, your employer can’t require compliance for that employee unless it demonstrates that you pose a “direct threat,” or significant risk of serious harm, to your own health or safety or that of others. If your employer concludes, based on an assessment of your individual circumstance, that you would pose a direct threat, they must decide whether a reasonable accommodation, like mask mandates and social distancing, would eliminate that threat.

What if I have a sincerely held religious belief?

You’re also entitled to reasonable accommodation. The legal definition of religion is very broad. And it protects beliefs and practices that may be unfamiliar to your employer. So your employer should generally assume that any religious belief is, in fact, sincerely held. But your employer is also entitled to request additional information if they have reason to question whether or not your belief is actually based on religion. So don’t make empty, insincere claims. Not wanting to do something is not the same as having a religious belief.

What if I’m pregnant?

Under Title VII, you’re entitled to certain adjustments if you’re pregnant and don’t want to get vaccinated for COVID-19. Similarly to reasonable accommodations, these options include telework, changs to your schedule, and mask-wearing if the employer makes them available to other employees.

Is it illegal for my employer to ask for documentation that I’ve been vaccinated?

No. Your employers’ collection of vaccine-related documentation does not constitute using, acquiring, or disclosing genetic information, as is prohibited by Title II of GINA, the federal statute preventing employees from using employees’ genetic information.

The bottom line? It’s generally not a civil-rights violation for your employer to mandate vaccination. And it’s the right thing to do. Get vaccinated. It protects you, your loved ones, and your community.

Visit https://www.vaccines.gov/ to find the vaccination site nearest you. Be a responsible citizen.


Related Practice Areas
Employment discriminationEmployment retaliation

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