Yes, Your Employer Can Require You to Get a COVID-19 Vaccine
Employer vaccine mandates may seem intense or even invasive. But the truth is that your employer can require you to get the COVID-19 vaccine before returning to work, according to new guidelines from the federal government’s Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).
The new guidelines reiterate the commission’s position that federal employment laws do not prohibit companies from requiring workers to get vaccinated if they’re coming back to the physical workplace. That means that, yes, an employer can mandate that returning employees get vaccinated.
But the rules also stipulate that companies are required to provide reasonable accommodations for employees who can’t or do not want to get the COVID-19 vaccines due to a “disability or a sincerely held religious belief, practice, or observance.” Those accommodations can include things like having that employee wear a face mask, stay physically distanced from other employees, get tested for COVID-19 regularly, work a modified shift, or work from home if possible. So people who, for instance, have severe allergies to the vaccines won’t necessarily have to get one before being able to go back to work because their employer should make other accommodations to keep them (and those around them) safe instead.
Based on requirements in the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), the EEOC also says that employers need to keep information about employees’ medical history confidential—including whether or not they’ve gotten a COVID-19 vaccine. Companies are allowed to ask for verification that an employee was vaccinated in the community, such as at a state-run vaccination site or a pharmacy, but the employer is also required to keep that information confidential.
The goal is, of course, to make returning to the physical workplace as safe as possible for everyone, including those who have and haven’t gotten a COVID-19 vaccine. However, the EEOC notes that, due to disparities in access to the vaccines, an employer vaccine requirement may have disproportionate effects on certain employees. That’s particularly true for those in Black and Latinx communities because the pandemic hit them especially hard—and they have vaccination rates behind those of white adults in the U.S.
Ultimately, the only way an employer can require someone who doesn’t want to get the vaccine to actually get it is if the employer can prove the employee poses a “direct threat” to others in the workplace that can’t be eliminated through other accommodations. Considering the high legal threshold for proving that someone is, in fact, a direct threat to other people, many companies have so far held off on putting a full vaccination mandate in place, The New York Times reported.
For now, employers are increasingly considering offering incentives for those who do get vaccinated rather than outright requiring it for everyone. The EEOC didn’t give specific examples of incentives that are okay, but did say that the incentives can’t be large enough that they could be considered coercive. Even if the incentives aren’t coercive, “a very large incentive could make employees feel pressured to disclose protected medical information,” the commission said.
So, yes, employers are allowed to make COVID-19 vaccines mandatory for employees returning to the office. But doing so comes with many other requirements, including those regarding providing accommodations for those who can’t or don’t want to be vaccinated and keeping medical information confidential. With all that vaccine mandates entail, it remains to be seen whether or not companies will decide to actually implement them on a large scale.
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