By MELESA N. JOHNSON
As COVID-19 cases and deaths continue to surge in the United States, the approval of various vaccines to curb the vicious impact the virus has had on the population is right on time. Most people are excited that vaccinations have begun, but employers who balance the desire to resume business as usual and the potential legal ramifications of mandating vaccination for employees face a pressing dilemma.
In short, it is legal for an employer to institute a COVID-19 vaccine mandate if the employer considers exemptions for valid medical or religious reasons. Previous guidance on this issue pertained to mandatory vaccinations for influenza in the employment space, but the EEOC recently issued clarifying information regarding mandatory COVID-19 vaccinations. The EEOC states that employers may implement mandatory COVID-19 vaccination programs, but if an employee is unable to receive the vaccine due to a disability, the employer then has the burden of showing that the employee poses a direct threat due to a “significant risk of substantial harm to the health or safety of the individual or others that that cannot be eliminated or reduced by reasonable accommodation” before terminating the employee.
Furthermore, the EEOC provides that employees with sincerely held religious beliefs may be entitled to an exemption from mandatory vaccination.
As Danny Ramón, a partner and employment law litigator at Seyferth Blumenthal & Harris LLC, recently stated in an interview with the Kansas City Business Journal, although employers may currently mandate COVID-19 vaccination, “any action to make vaccination mandatory should be
approached with caution.” (link to KC Business Journal interview here)
 29 C.F.R. 1630.2(r)