EEOC Guidance on COVID-19 Vaccinations: Part 2 – ADA and Title VII Issues Regarding Mandatory Vaccinations

Guest blog post courtesy of Brian Rickert, Construction Practice Group Chair at BrownWinick Law Firm.

This is part 2 of our series. You may have questions about COVID-19 vaccinations and what can and cannot be done, including questions about the applicability of various equal employment opportunity (EEO) laws, including the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act, GINA, and Title VII, including the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (see Section J, EEO rights relating to pregnancy). The EEOC has provided some guidance relating to the ADA and Title VII issues regarding mandatory vaccinations that I thought would pass along, and which is below. I would also note the EEO laws do not interfere with or prevent employers from following CDC or other federal, state, and local public health authorities’ guidelines and suggestions so we will see how those develop over time.

K.4. Where can employers learn more about Emergency Use Authorizations (EUA) of COVID-19 vaccines? (12/16/20)

Some COVID-19 vaccines may only be available to the public for the foreseeable future under EUA granted by the FDA, which is different from approval under FDA vaccine licensure. The FDA has an obligation to:

[E]nsure that recipients of the vaccine under an EUA are informed, to the extent practicable under the applicable circumstances, that FDA has authorized the emergency use of the vaccine, of the known and potential benefits and risks, the extent to which such benefits and risks are unknown, that they have the option to accept or refuse the vaccine, and of any available alternatives to the product.

The FDA says that this information is typically conveyed in a patient fact sheet that is provided at the time of the vaccine administration and that it posts the fact sheets on its website. More information about EUA vaccines is available on the FDA’s EUA page. 

K.5. If an employer requires vaccinations when they are available, how should it respond to an employee who indicates that he or she is unable to receive a COVID-19 vaccination because of a disability? (12/16/20)

The ADA allows an employer to have a qualification standard that includes “a requirement that an individual shall not pose a direct threat to the health or safety of individuals in the workplace.” However, if a safety-based qualification standard, such as a vaccination requirement, screens out or tends to screen out an individual with a disability, the employer must show that an unvaccinated employee would pose a direct threat due to a “significant risk of substantial harm to the health or safety of the individual or others that cannot be eliminated or reduced by reasonable accommodation.”  29 C.F.R. 1630.2(r). Employers should conduct an individualized assessment of four factors in determining whether a direct threat exists: the duration of the risk; the nature and severity of the potential harm; the likelihood that the potential harm will occur; and the imminence of the potential harm. A conclusion that there is a direct threat would include a determination that an unvaccinated individual will expose others to the virus at the worksite. If an employer determines that an individual who cannot be vaccinated due to disability poses a direct threat at the worksite, the employer cannot exclude the employee from the workplace—or take any other action—unless there is no way to provide a reasonable accommodation (absent undue hardship) that would eliminate or reduce this risk so the unvaccinated employee does not pose a direct threat.

If there is a direct threat that cannot be reduced to an acceptable level, the employer can exclude the employee from physically entering the workplace, but this does not mean the employer may automatically terminate the worker. Employers will need to determine if any other rights apply under the EEO laws or other federal, state, and local authorities. For example, if an employer excludes an employee based on an inability to accommodate a request to be exempt from a vaccination requirement, the employee may be entitled to accommodations such as performing the current position remotely. This is the same step that employers take when physically excluding employees from a worksite due to a current COVID-19 diagnosis or symptoms; some workers may be entitled to telework or, if not, may be eligible to take leave under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, under the FMLA, or under the employer’s policies. See also Section J, EEO rights relating to pregnancy.

Managers and supervisors responsible for communicating with employees about compliance with the employer’s vaccination requirement should know how to recognize an accommodation request from an employee with a disability and know to whom the request should be referred for consideration. Employers and employees should engage in a flexible, interactive process to identify workplace accommodation options that do not constitute an undue hardship (significant difficulty or expense). This process should include determining whether it is necessary to obtain supporting documentation about the employee’s disability and considering the possible options for accommodation given the nature of the workforce and the employee’s position. The prevalence in the workplace of employees who already have received a COVID-19 vaccination and the amount of contact with others, whose vaccination status could be unknown, may impact the undue hardship consideration. In discussing accommodation requests, employers and employees also may find it helpful to consult the Job Accommodation Network (JAN) website as a resource for different types of accommodations, www.askjan.org. JAN’s materials specific to COVID-19 are at https://askjan.org/topics/COVID-19.cfm.

Employers may rely on CDC recommendations when deciding whether an effective accommodation that would not pose an undue hardship is available, but as explained further in Question K.7., there may be situations where accommodation is not possible. When an employer makes this decision, the facts about particular job duties and workplaces may be relevant. Employers also should consult the applicable Occupational Safety and Health Administration standards and guidance. Employers can find OSHA COVID-specific resources at: www.osha.gov/SLTC/covid-19/.

Managers and supervisors are reminded that it is unlawful to disclose that an employee is receiving a reasonable accommodation or retaliate against an employee for requesting accommodation.

K.6. If an employer requires vaccinations when they are available, how should it respond to an employee who indicates that he or she is unable to receive a COVID-19 vaccination because of a sincerely held religious practice or belief? (12/16/20)

Once an employer is on notice that an employee’s sincerely held religious belief, practice, or observance prevents the employee from receiving the vaccination, the employer must provide a reasonable accommodation for the religious belief, practice, or observance unless it would pose an undue hardship under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. Courts have defined “undue hardship” under Title VII as having more than a de minimis cost or burden on the employer. EEOC guidance explains that because the definition of religion is broad and protects beliefs, practices, and observances with which the employer may be unfamiliar, the employer should ordinarily assume that an employee’s request for religious accommodation is based on a sincerely held religious belief. If, however, an employee requests a religious accommodation, and an employer has an objective basis for questioning either the religious nature or the sincerity of a particular belief, practice, or observance, the employer would be justified in requesting additional supporting information.

K.7. What happens if an employer cannot exempt or provide reasonable accommodation to an employee who cannot comply with a mandatory vaccine policy because of a disability or sincerely held religious practice or belief? (12/16/20)

If an employee cannot get vaccinated for COVID-19 because of a disability or sincerely held religious belief, practice, or observance, and there is no reasonable accommodation possible, then it would be lawful for the employer to exclude the employee from the workplace. This does not mean the employer may automatically terminate the worker. Employers will need to determine if any other rights apply under the EEO laws or other federal, state, and local authorities.

To read the entire update from the EEOC, click HERE. We will share part three of this series tomorrow.

If you have any questions, please let me know. My contact information is below.

Brian Rickert, Construction Practice Group Chair
BrownWinick Law Firm
Brownwinick.com
515-242-2457
brian.rickert@brownwinick.com

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