Can Employers Make the COVID-19 Vaccine Mandatory for Employees Under the Americans with Disabilities Act?

The COVID-19 vaccines provide a glimmer of hope as new cases surge nationwide. It also raises some interesting questions for employers. How, for example, will the vaccine’s increasing availability be viewed in the context of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)? Can employees be required to provide proof of vaccination? Can employers make COVID-19 vaccines mandatory for employees? Fortunately, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issued updated guidance to help employers answer some COVID-19 vaccine-related questions that are likely to arise in the near future.

Is asking or requiring an employee to show proof of COVID-19 vaccination a disability-related inquiry under the ADA? According to the EEOC, no. Simply requesting proof of vaccination is not likely to elicit disability-related information, so it’s not a disability-related inquiry. However, the EEOC cautions that subsequent questions (Why didn’t you get vaccinated?) may elicit information about a disability and would need to be job-related and consistent with business necessity. The EEOC recommends warning employees not to provide any medical information as part of the proof in order to avoid implicating the ADA.

How should employers respond to employees who are unable to get vaccinated because of a disability? The ADA allows employers to protect against direct threats to workplace health or safety. However, if a COVID-19 vaccination requirement screens out or tends to screen out individuals with disabilities, the employer must show that an unvaccinated employee would pose a direct threat due to a significant risk of substantial harm that cannot be eliminated or reduced to an acceptable level by reasonable accommodation. Managers and supervisors responsible for communicating an employer’s COVID-19 vaccination requirement should know how to recognize and respond to accommodation requests. The EEOC urges employers and employees to engage in a flexible, interactive process to identify accommodations that do not constitute an undue hardship (significant difficulty or expense).

Though employers may rely on CDC recommendations when evaluating reasonable accommodations, the EEOC concedes that an accommodation may not be possible in some situations. If that’s the case, the employer may exclude the employee from physically entering the workplace, but the employee should not be automatically terminated. According to the EEOC, employers must first determine whether the employee is protected under any other provision of the ADA or other any other applicable federal, state or local law before taking any adverse action.

Determining if a direct threat exists and whether it can be eliminated or reduced with a reasonable accommodation generally requires an individualized assessment. Some situations may be black or white, but most will be different shades of gray. Employers may need to consult with counsel throughout the process to avoid unintentional, yet costly mistakes.

The Human Equation prepares all risk management and insurance content with the professional guidance of Setnor Byer Insurance & Risk.

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