With certain exceptions, employers do have a right to require vaccinations in the workplace, though employers are not required to mandate that its workforce be vaccinated. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and the Occupational Safety and Health Commission (OSHA) have both issued guidance for employers to consider in dealing with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on its workforce. See, https://www.eeoc.gov/wysk/what-you-should-know-about-covid-19-and-ada-rehabilitation-act-and-other-eeo-laws and https://www.osha.gov/coronavirus/safework, for further information.
In a decision issued on September 24, 2021 in the case of Beckerich v. St. Elizabeth Medical Center, the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Kentucky denied a request for a preliminary injunction to prohibit a hospital from requiring hospital staff to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 or obtain a valid exemption. While the opinion only pertained to the request for a preliminary injunction, and did not finally resolve the case, the Court’s opinion is nonetheless informative on the issue of an employer’s ability to impose a vaccine mandate on its workforce. As recognized by the Court, an employer may impose a vaccine mandate upon its employees, however, “under the [Americans with Disabilities Act] and Title VII [of the Civil Rights Act], private employers … are required to offer medical and religious accommodations to its mandatory vaccination policy.”
The ADA applies to employers with 15 or more employees and requires an employer to provide a reasonable accommodation to a qualified individual with a disability. In the context of a COVID-vaccine, an employee would need to request an exemption from an employer’s vaccine mandate for a medical reason. As the Beckerich opinion noted, “Doubtless, some reactions to vaccines can be severe enough … to rise to the level of a disability under the ADA.” If a medical exemption is requested and sufficient proof is provided in support of the request, then an employer would be required to honor an employee’s request for a reasonable accommodation, to the extent such is possible. An employer, however, is neither required to change the essential functions of an employee’s job, or to create a new position as an accommodation to an employee.
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibits employers from discriminating against their employees on a variety of grounds, including for their religious beliefs. An employee who objects to the vaccine on religious grounds may do so based upon a sincerely held religious belief that is in conflict with the vaccine requirement (best practice would be to assume the religious belief is sincerely held, unless an employer has good reason to believe otherwise, in which case it would not be unreasonable to request supporting proof). A religious accommodation, however, must not impose an “undue hardship” upon an employer; meaning anything more than a de minimis cost, and including accommodations that would impede a company’s operations, burden other employees, or violate a company’s seniority system.
In sum, an employer may impose a COVID-19 vaccine mandate upon its workforce, provided that employees are allowed to request a medical exemption or religious exemption. However, in granting such exemptions, employers are not required to eliminate an essential function of an employee’s job, or create a new job for the employee, and are further not required to bear an “undue hardship” in providing an accommodation.
This article, of course, is not a comprehensive analysis of the various legal issues that could arise with regard to vaccine mandates in the workplace. It is recommended that an employer who is considering implementing such a mandate should first consult with an attorney so that issues that may be particular that the employers business or workforce may be more fully considered.
If you need the assistance of an experienced attorney, please contact Gess Mattingly & Atchison P.S.C. Since 1954, the firm has been representing clients throughout the Commonwealth of Kentucky, and has grown to become a full-service law firm with the ability to serve a diverse clientele in a variety of practice areas, including, but not limited to: Administrative & Regulatory Law; Appellate Law; Arbitration & Mediation; Bankruptcy & Financial Restructuring; Business & Commercial Law; Civil Litigation; Commercial & Residential Real Estate; Construction Law; Criminal Defense & Expungements; Equine Law; Estate Planning, Litigation & Probate Law; Family Law; Insurance Law; Media & First Amendment Law; and State & Local Government Law. Call (859) 252-9000 to request a consultation, or visit their website to learn more about the legal services they perform. This is an advertisement.
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