What you should know about COVID-19 vaccinations.
On October 13, 2021, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) issued several updates to its Q&A relating to COVID-19 and vaccinations—What You Should Know About COVID-19 and the ADA, the Rehabilitation Act, and other EEO Laws. These focus on common questions that employees may raise with you as an employer. It appears they are meant to address some common misinformation circulating on social media. Note the EEOC only addresses federal law and individual states may significantly vary in terms of implementation of rules and policies.
Is it against the law to require vaccinations?
One of the most common questions, “Is it against the law to require vaccinations?” is addressed in K.1 and the answer is No. Citing to Title VII the ADA and other federal employment non-discrimination laws, the EEOC states that although the opportunity for exemption must be provided according to religious and medical needs, vaccine mandates are legal.
The EEOC also reminds employers to be cautious about the potential of disparate impact claims as some groups may not have the same access to vaccination as others. This has been addressed by some employers who have provided for vaccine clinics or contracted with local public health or others to provide vaccinations for employees at convenient places and times.
In discussing that some accommodations may be needed in the workforce for those with healthcare conditions, the EEOC suggests materials that are available on the Job Accommodation Network (JAN) with specific COVID-19 materials.
In response to questions relating to religious accommodation in the workplace, the EEOC notes, “That the definition of religion is broad and protects beliefs, practices, and observances with which the employer may be unfamiliar.” It further notes that while sincerity is normally assumed, if an employer “is aware of facts that provide an objective basis for questioning either the religious nature or the sincerity of a particular belief, practice, or observance” the employer may request additional supporting information. Such reasonable belief may stem from the employee utilizing prior vaccine programs or becoming vaccinated as part of their employment, employees making statements that they don’t have religious objections but simply do not want to get a COVID vaccine or inconsistent statements in the request for the exemption itself.
The EEOC highlights that the Title VII or religious accommodation undue hardship assessment for employers is a lesser burden than that required to meet the ADA undue hardship standard. Considerations can include the number of employees who are vaccinated, the nature of employee contact, the type of work, whether the work is done outside or inside, and a wide array of other factors in assessing the safety of fellow employees or customers.
Iowa COVID Vaccine Exemption Law
In late October Iowa passed a statute Iowa Code 94.2 which states that a declaratory statement of “health or wellbeing” or religion is enough to qualify for an exemption. This is significantly different than federal guidance or developed case law. It does not appear to reference philosophized beliefs but only “religion” with no definition. This very broad statutory statement will almost certainly have future litigation.
The Big Picture
This updated Q&A is not a departure from case law or prior EEOC standards. However, it can provide an updated resource for employee questions and the community as well.