As many employers begin transitioning employees back to their offices after extended time away working remotely from their homes, the issue of whether or not they can require COVID-19 vaccination has been arising. Can employers indeed require employees to get vaccinated? This is a question worth exploring, both for employers as well as the millions of employees out there. The answer, as always, depends on an employee’s situation. Read on to find out more.
Can Employers Require Vaccination?
The short answer as to whether employers can require employees to get a COVID-19 vaccination is ‘yes.’ However, employers must also provide what is termed ‘reasonable accommodation’ for those who can’t receive a vaccination due to either a disability or a sincerely held religious belief. In this regard, employers are required by law to engage in a dialog with their employees seeking exemption from the vaccination requirement to determine if a reasonable accommodation can be granted instead of requiring full vaccination.
Separating or Terminating Employees
According to legal experts, who cite the relevant employment law, employers can indeed adopt mandatory vaccination policies and then separate or terminate those employees not qualifying for reasonable accommodation due to a verifiable disability or because of a sincerely held religious belief. The US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has issued guidance permitting mandatory vaccination policies, and whether an employee is vaccinated doesn’t fall under what EEOC calls a ‘protected category’ of employee.
In short: In the EEOC’s eyes, requiring a COVID-19 vaccination is like most other employer rules. It is what the employer is asking of its employees, in other words, and is not discriminatory on its face as long as reasonable accommodations are made for disability or sincerely held religious beliefs.
Proceed With Caution, Though
As always, employers should proceed with caution whenever they ask employees about their health. Depending on the state their offices are located in, employers may have to abide by an honor system in which they must accept their employees’ assertion that they’ve been vaccinated, and that they therefore don’t have to wear masks or social distance. Alternatively, in other states, employers may be able to require proof of such vaccination. In New York State, for example, employers can require employees to proof of vaccination before they can remove their masks and not observe social distancing rules and regulations.
Safeguard all Documentation
Employers should never forget that they must also properly safeguard all information and documentation regarding their employees’ vaccination status, and they can never share employees’ vaccination status with others. Additionally, employers should always refer to the latest EEOC guidelines – available on the federal agency’s website – and consult with legal counsel before requiring employees to both obtain a vaccination and also before they separate any employees refusing to either get vaccinated or show proof of vaccination.
Communication is Key
When reopening offices and bringing employees back into their old workspaces, it’s important for employers to communicate frequently. For one, they should ensure all employees have had a chance to go over reopening plans. Employers should also provide COVID-19 rules and protocols to their employees ahead of time. The day they return to the office isn’t when such rules should first be disseminated, either. Finally, employers should ensure they’ve communicated what their expectations for reopening are. Will every employee be coming back to work at once, or will some portion of work still be done remotely? If remotely, then employers should take care to spell out what portion (such as days and hours of the week) will still be done remotely and what will be done in-office.