Get the COVID Vaccination Shot or Not?
According to a Gallup poll, a third of Americans would not get a free, FDA-approved COVID vaccine if it were available today. How will we protect our workplaces if many are unwilling to get vaccinated? Although no vaccine has been approved for full use yet, 44 are in clinical trials. Employers should start thinking whether they will mandate a COVID vaccination.
Workplace vaccination programs are not new. While most vaccination programs focus on the flu, healthcare employers often impose more robust requirements to protect employees and vulnerable patient populations.
Can Employers Mandate COVID Vaccination?
Amid the COVID pandemic and the race for a vaccine, employers beyond healthcare are beginning to wonder: “Can we require employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19?” In general, the answer is yes. For the most part, mandatory vaccination programs are legal as long as employers consider making accommodations for employees with disabilities and those with religious objections.
What Disability Excuses Employees from Mandatory Vaccination?
There is no definitive list of disabilities or a list of medical conditions that exempt employees from mandatory flu shots. The standard is vague. According to the American with Disability Act (ADA), employees with medical conditions preventing them from getting the flu shot must be accommodated unless doing so would pose an undue hardship on the employer.
Requests for exemptions must be examined on a case-by-case basis. This means engaging in a dialogue with the employee to determine the limitations and what accommodations are feasible. For example, an employee exempt from the flu (or COVID) shot could be required to wear enhanced protective equipment. Employees are required to cooperate in the interactive process to find acceptable accommodations. Employees cannot insist on an accommodation of their choice. The employer has the final say.
Title VII requires employers to accommodate sincerely held religious beliefs. In some cases, the line between religious beliefs and personal preferences can be difficult to draw. Protected religious beliefs are not limited to organized religion or based on theology to be entitled to protection. Generally, it is tricky to challenge the sincerity of an employee’s religious belief so most employers will attempt to accommodate religious objections.
Fears, Misconceptions, and Other Objections To COVID Vaccination
Employees may resist vaccination for a variety of other reasons. They may be concerned that it could trigger the disease it’s meant to protect, afraid of needles, or they object to the mandate to get a shot. For the most part, these reasons are “personal preferences” that employers do not need to accommodate. However, if you choose to mandate the flu vaccine, be prepared to decide if an employee’s refusal is based on a legitimate objection (medical or religious), or on a personal preference.
In addition, employers may also want to consider the politicized and polarized nature of the cultural dialogue surrounding the prevention of COVID-19 transmission. The imposition of mandatory COVID-19 vaccination will almost certainly result in a slew of accommodation requests—medical, religious, personal, and ethical—fueled by mistrust.
What’s Your COVID Vaccination Policy?
Before imposing a COVID vaccination policy and risk challenges, consider the following points:
- Consider whether a mandatory policy is truly necessary in light of other alternatives, such as remote work, physical distancing, facial coverings, and other CDC-recommended steps to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
- If a mandatory vaccine policy is necessary, consider confining the mandate to worksites and jobs where alternatives are not viable.
- Be prepared for requests of accommodations.
- Provide the vaccination at no or little cost to employees.
- Consider making vaccination available on-site at times convenient to employees during working hours.
- Consider that an adverse reaction to an employer-mandated vaccine could lead to a workers’ compensation claim.
- Your vaccination program could be considered part of your wellness program; your workers’ compensation insurance may provide a discounted premium.
If nothing else, the COVID-19 pandemic has required employers to consistently adapt to a rapidly changing environment. A mandatory vaccination policy may or may not be right for your workplace. As you explore your options, proceed with caution, remain nimble, and stay prepared. Just like you have responded to the COVID pandemic up to now!