With drug manufacturers racing to develop a COVID-19 vaccine, some workers might be wondering whether their employers can institute a mandatory vaccination policy. In general, your employer can require you to take a vaccine as a condition of your employment, although there are a few exceptions.
Mandatory vaccination policies are nothing new. For decades, schools have required students to receive certain vaccinations in order to attend. And healthcare facilities have long imposed vaccination requirements on doctors, nurses, and other staff. Still, mandatory vaccination policies aren't the norm in most other employment contexts. That might change with the arrival of a COVID-19 vaccine.
While the law is clear that employers can generally require vaccination, it's a legitimate question as to whether a mandatory vaccination policy is a good idea for all employers.
The idea of an employer instituting a mandatory COVID-19 vaccination policy presents some complex issues, both legally and with workplace morale.
On the one hand, employees might legitimately question whether a COVID-19 vaccine is safe, particularly if they have underlying health conditions. Others might simply be opposed to taking any type of vaccine whatsoever.
On the other hand, the Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Act and similar state laws require employers to keep the workplace free of hazards and dangerous conditions. The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) also provides employees with legal remedies when the workplace is unsafe.
In the end, employers might feel like they're stuck between a rock and hard place. Forcing employees to take a vaccine will not be a popular choice in all cases, but employers might feel compelled to do so as part of their legal duty to keep the workplace safe.
If you could be harmed by a vaccine due to a preexisting medical condition, you can request an accommodation. Your employer would then have to make a reasonable effort to find another way for you to safely perform the essential functions of your job before taking an adverse employment action. Examples of a reasonable accommodation include:
Keep in mind, however, that having a garden-variety type allegoric reaction to a COVID-19 vaccine will probably not trigger your employer’s duty to accommodate.
Whether a particular accommodation constitutes "undue hardship" to an employer is a fact-specific analysis that takes into consideration:
In most cases, a reasonable accommodation will be possible. However, in some jobs that have been deemed high-risk by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), such as health care workers, taking a vaccine might be the only option.
If you don't have a preexisting medical condition, you still might qualify for a religious exemption under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. This federal civil rights law protects employees from workplace discrimination based on a sincerely held religious, ethical, or moral belief.
Similar to the ADA, if you prove that you have a sincere religious belief that would be violated by having to take a COVID-19 vaccine, your employer must provide a reasonable accommodation unless it causes an undue hardship.
Endangering other employees, decreasing workplace production, and the expense associated with an accommodation are all examples of undue hardship depending on the nature of your employment and the facts of your case.
Like many issues that arise in the workplace, communication is key. If your employer institutes a mandatory COVID-19 vaccine policy, you should make sure you express any concerns to your supervisor or human resources department. Your argument will be stronger if it is based on a:
However, a legitimate fear for your safety could also work in your favor given that the workplace would be disrupted if enough employees have an adverse reaction to the vaccine. In theory, a vaccine that proves to be inadequate or creates health risks could lead to workers’ compensation claims and make a mandatory vaccination policy more trouble for your employer than it is worth.
At the end of the day, mandatory vaccination policies might make the most sense for those employed in high-risk fields. Other employers might elect to make encourage, but not require, COVID-19 vaccination.
You should be prepared, however, to be flexible. If your employer offers you a reasonable accommodation, such as changing your hours, work location, or wearing PPE, your job could be at risk if you don't accept it.