Can Employers Prevent Unvaccinated Employees from Entering the Workplace?
Many employers are struggling with how to deal with the shrinking, yet substantial number of employees who are not vaccinated for COVID-19. As infection rates increase, employers are once again forced to consider actions to maintain operations while protecting the health, safety and welfare of their employees. Some are considering policies that require all employees physically entering the workplace to be vaccinated for COVID-19. Is this legal?
According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, federal EEO laws do not prevent an employer from requiring all employees physically entering the workplace to be vaccinated for COVID-19. However, the EEOC stresses that it must be done in a manner that does not violate the reasonable accommodation provisions of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act.
These laws may require an employer to provide reasonable accommodations for employees who do not get vaccinated for COVID-19 because of a disability or a sincerely held religious belief, practice or observance. Reasonable accommodations may include requiring an unvaccinated employee entering the workplace to wear a face mask, maintain social distance from others, work a modified shift, get periodic COVID-19 tests or be given the opportunity to telework. A reasonable accommodation, however, is not required if would pose an undue hardship on business operations. Courts define “undue hardship” under Title VII as having more than minimal cost or burden on the employer. This is an easier standard for employers to meet than the ADA’s undue hardship standard, which generally requires significant difficulty or expense.
The EEOC cautions that as with any employment policy, employers must ensure that their vaccine requirement does not have a disparate impact on employees based on a protected characteristic (race, color, religion, disability, etc.). Policies that disproportionately impact or exclude employees because of these characteristics are discriminatory and unlawful. The EEOC urges employers to recognize that some individuals or demographic groups may face greater barriers to receiving a COVID-19 vaccination than others. As a result, some employees may be more likely to be negatively impacted by a vaccination requirement.
Employers should remember that guidance from public health authorities is likely to change as the COVID-19 pandemic evolves. Therefore, employers should continue to follow the most current information on maintaining workplace safety. Employers should also carry Employment Practices Liability Insurance to cover the high cost of defending against claims of unlawful conduct.
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