Many workers are asking whether employers can require the COVID-19 vaccine if they are eligible for it. The short answer is maybe. Read on, as we discuss the specifics of vaccine requirements.
Per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), we are currently in the final phase of the vaccine rollout (as of May 12, 2021). This means the vaccine is no longer limited to the elderly, frontline workers, or individuals with high-risk or preexisting conditions. All individuals aged 12 and older are eligible for the vaccine.
With the vaccine available to most of the United States, many expect employers to at least encourage workers to get it. In some cases, employers may even try to enforce mandatory immunization.
Can they require a vaccine?
As of May 28, 2021, the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission (EEOC) states that federal laws do not prevent employers from requiring employees to be vaccinated if they are coming into the workplace.
Although there is no clear legal directive on this issue, many existing policies come into play.
First, employers have to take reasonable care to provide a safe workplace for their employees and others in the workplace. Failing to meet this obligation could result in claims against the employer and workers’ compensation claims by employees.
These considerations are crucial when employment is in an area where exposure to COVID-19 is likely, such as healthcare workers.
Some employers may conclude that requiring employees to vaccinate is a reasonable and necessary precaution.
What are the exceptions?
If an employee can prove they have a disability or medical condition that prevents them from being vaccinated, then the American’s With Disabilities Act (ADA) may require an employer to provide “reasonable accommodation” for this disability.
Reasonable accommodations may include requiring the use of additional or specialized personal protective equipment for an unvaccinated employee or allowing an employee to work from home. Any accommodation the employer makes must be reasonable under the circumstances and the employer must apply it consistently to all employees.
Vaccines and Alabama State Law
State laws are another important consideration. For instance, Alabama is an employment-at-will state. This means employers can terminate employees without specifying cause as long as the decision is not proven to be discriminatory based on race, color, religion, sex, national origin, disability, or age. Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination based on these classes.
Suppose an employee objects to receiving a mandatory vaccine. They may seek relief under the Civil Rights Act and argue that they have religious belief conflicting with the requirement.
If that were to happen, another key consideration would be whether the employer can reasonably accommodate the employees wish to avoid vaccination.
As with many things associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, many questions have not been addressed before in employment situations. Although the applicable laws may not specifically address pandemic-related issues, they provide a framework that employers and employees can use to make decisions about vaccinations.
If you think you may have a worker’s compensation claim against an employer, contact us. Our experienced attorneys are here to help you every step of the way.