New York, October 2021: People gather to protest New York City’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate for public school employees outside the Department of Education offices in Brooklyn. The city’s mandate went into effect on October 4, and 95% of educators in the city are said to have received at least one shot of the vaccine, after a federal appeal committee ruled last week that the vaccination requirement could continue. A portion of the American population is resisting, for a wide range of reasons, the call to be vaccinated despite scientific evidence that the vaccine has been shown to be effective in preventing serious illnesses caused by the coronavirus.
Below are key sections of a Congressional Research Service report on legal challenges to employer mandates for vaccines.
While the federal Anti-Discrimination in Employment Act does not prohibit employers from requiring vaccinations, it does require employers to grant certain exemptions to employees with disabilities or with religious concerns. The ADA and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (applying ADA standards to federal employers and grant recipients) require employers to change the work rules of certain employees with disabilities. These laws would apply to the vaccination mandates of employers. Disability laws also restrict certain medical investigations. Second, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 requires employers to take into account workers’ religious objections to vaccination and the health concerns of pregnant workers.
Title VII and federal disability protections apply to most state, federal and private employers. These laws have a number of exemptions. Of particular importance, neither the ADA nor Title VII applies to employers with fewer than 15 workers. To date, there is little case law on how these laws might apply to COVID-19 vaccination policies, but case law regarding other vaccination policies, as well as EEOC guidelines specifically concerning COVID-19, can be instructive.
Reasonable accommodations for employees with disabilities
In the context of COVID-19, some workers may request an exemption from compulsory vaccination due to a medical condition. If the state of health of an employee is equivalent to a handicap, that is to say an “impairment which considerably limits one or more major activities of life”, then the ADA or the Rehabilitation Act apply, prohibiting employers from taking adverse action against a worker because of a disability. In addition, the Federal Disability Act requires employers to provide reasonable accommodation as requested, unless they impose undue hardship on the employer. When considering an accommodation request, an employer should assess whether a disability prevents vaccination, the alternatives available, and (in the case of an infectious disease) the possible threats of vaccine exemptions.
Court assessments of compulsory vaccination under federal disability laws
Courts have yet to assess mandatory vaccine requirements during the COVID-19 pandemic, but they have occasionally considered challenges to mandatory flu vaccination requirements under civil rights laws. In many cases, employers have been successful, especially when an employee has failed to prove that she has a suspected allergy and has not looked for available hypoallergenic vaccines. In another case, a court found that an employee could not prove that she had a disability if she did not prove that her allergy significantly limited a major activity of life.
In other circumstances, judges have more favorably received an employee’s claims. The third circuit concluded that severe anxiety about an injection could be considered a handicap, at least in the case of a nurse who refused a tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis vaccine. The court ruled that a complainant had sufficiently raised a request for ADA, given that she offered to wear a mask instead of being vaccinated and her employer rejected the offer without offering an alternative.
Religious housing under Title VII
Title VII Likewise, employers must accommodate workers’ religious practices, unless they impose “undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business.” Generally speaking, this provision of Title VII applies when an employee’s religious belief or practice conflicts with a requirement of the job.
In the context of objections to vaccines, courts have considered a variety of religious beliefs and possible accommodations. In one such case, a Muslim worker at a Boston hospital requested an exemption for a flu vaccine citing concerns about the ingredients in pork. The defendant generally greeted employee opposition to pork-based ingredients with a gelatin-free influenza vaccine. But while this accommodation resolved the religious concerns of other workers, the complainant believed that many vaccines were “contaminated”. The hospital also attempted to accommodate the complainant by finding her a position outside of patient care, but was unsuccessful. The court found that the hospital had reasonably accommodated the plaintiff when it helped her find another position and found, in the alternative, that retaining her would have imposed undue hardship. The record showed the difficulties of the risk of infection, the court concluded, as it documented the hospital’s “understanding of the medical consensus on influenza vaccination” for healthcare workers.
In the context of Title VII accommodations, the courts have held that an “employer suffers undue hardship when required to bear more than the minimum load. [sic] cost or charge on colleagues’ for religious adjustments. Whether an accommodation is an undue burden takes into account the rights of other employees, efficiency, cost and other considerations. The Supreme Court explained that Title VII does not require adjustments that are made “to the detriment of others”. For example, when an employee requested a particular work schedule to allow for the observance of the Sabbath, the Court found that Title VII did not require an employer to alter the seniority rights of other workers to provide the accommodation.
By further defining what is considered a religious practice, the EEOC regulations include “moral or ethical beliefs.” . . held with the force of traditional religious views. This includes idiosyncratic beliefs, which “no religious group espouses” or those “the religious group to which the individual claims to belong may not accept”. Ordinarily, recommends the EEOC, employers should “assume that an employee’s request for religious accommodation is based on genuine religious belief. But if there is “an objective basis for questioning the religious nature or sincerity of a particular belief,” the employer may request additional supporting information.
The courts have looked at a range of beliefs. For example, an Ohio district court ruled “plausible” that a hospital worker refusing an animal-based influenza vaccine “could endorse veganism with a sincerity equivalent to that of traditional religious views,” being given that she cited verses from the Bible as support.
In other cases, courts have found that an objector’s beliefs, even if they were firmly held, were not of a religious nature and therefore could not enjoy legal protection. For example, the Third Circuit, considering an objection to a mandatory influenza vaccine, concluded that the “personal belief of an employeeThat “the flu shot may do more harm than good” amounted to “medical, not religious belief” under Title VII. Although the employee cited a passage attributed to Buddhism in his complaint, he did not belong to “any religious organization.” And the employee’s conviction that “we must not harm his [sic] own body ”was, in the court’s opinion, an“ isolated moral teaching ”rather than a“ complete system of beliefs ”. In a similar vein, the Second Circuit rejected a religious challenge in another context, the school vaccination requirements. She confirmed a finding that parents’ “strong beliefs about the need for ‘natural existence‘” based on “scientific and secular theories” were not religious.
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