Many people are asking, “Can my employer require me to get vaccinated against COVID-19?”

The short answer, in most cases, is yes. There are, however, some exceptions to this general statement. 

Historically, the decision to mandate vaccinations has been within the purview of the states. As far back as 1905, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the authority of states to enforce compulsory vaccination laws during the smallpox epidemic. Jacobson v. Commonwealth of Massachusetts, 197 U.S. 11 (1905). There is a long Constitutional history of states being empowered to act when the health and safety of their citizens are compromised. 

There is federal legal precedent as well. In November 2009, in the midst of the Novel H1N1 swine flu epidemic, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration issued an Interpretation Letter advising that an employer may require an employee to be vaccinated against the H1N1 swine flu outbreak. The agency did note, however, the employees may request medical or religious exemptions.

And in June 2021, in response to COVID-19, guidance issued by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission said that employers can legally require COVID-19 vaccinations for employees to re-enter the workplace.


Medical Exemptions

As noted in the OSHA Interpretation Letter, people with medical conditions for whom immunizations might be dangerous are exempt from workplace policies. An example would be people who have suffered a severe allergic reaction to any vaccine or injectable medication, or to a specific component of the COVID-19 vaccine.

For people in these groups, the employer would likely have to provide a “reasonable accommodation,” which may entail allowing the employee to work remotely or instituting strict safety protocols relating to that employee that would not put the employee or others at risk.

In certain cases, the employer may invoke a defense of “undue hardship” as defined by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq. (1964) (“Title VII”).  Undue hardship generally means that providing the accommodation would result in significant difficulty or expense to the employer.

Religious Exemptions

Employees with a “sincerely held religious belief” against vaccinations are also exempt. Whether a belief is “sincerely held” is generally an issue of individual credibility.  However, it’s important to note that this exemption does not apply to “sincerely held beliefs” that are not religious, such as general opposition to vaccines.

The Religious Exemption is grounded in judicial interpretations of the First Amendment’s Free Exercise of Religion Clause, and the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (“RFRA”), 42 U.S.C. § 2000bb (1993), and state equivalents. The RFRA requires that laws that burden religious exercise must be supported by the government’s compelling interests and be as least restrictive as possible. 

If an employee alleges a sincerely held religious belief, the employer must evaluate the information provided. If this belief is proven, the employer must offer reasonable accommodations for the employee to continue working. As with the Medical Exemption, the employer may invoke a defense of “undue hardship” as defined by Title VII, which generally means that providing the accommodation would result in significant difficulty or expense to the employer.

State Laws

Arkansas, Florida, and Texas have all recently enacted laws prohibiting employers from requiring employees to be vaccinated. A Texas hospital is being sued by more than 100 employees after saying that vaccines would be required for continued employment.  

Contact Counxel Legal Firm

If your employer is requiring you to get the COVID-19 vaccine, and you believe you have a legitimate medical or religious reason for refusing to do so, contact Counxel Legal Firm at 480-536-6122, or send an email to intake@wordpress-457010-3165254.cloudwaysapps.com. We’re experts in business and employment law, and can help you navigate the path forward. 

This article is intended for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice for your specific situation. Use of and access to this article does not create an attorney-client relationship between you and Counxel Legal Firm. Please contact intake@wordpress-457010-3165254.cloudwaysapps.com or 480-536-6122 to request specific information for your situation.

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