As the Delta variant of Covid-19 surges and the Food and Drug Administration issues its final approval of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, more and more companies are mandating that employees get vaccinated. PLG is receiving an increased number of calls from employees asking: “Can my company require me to get vaccinated?”
The short answer—yes, subject to limited exceptions. As explained in guidance from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in May 2021, federal laws do not prevent an employer from requiring all employees entering the workplace to be vaccinated for Covid-19. As a general rule, if a company implements a vaccine requirement and an employee refuses to get vaccinated, the company may fire the employee. This is true in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut—all states where vaccine mandates are permitted.
There are two exceptions to this general rule. Companies covered by federal employment laws must consider exemption requests from employees who refuse to get vaccinated because of (1) a disability, or (2) the employee’s sincerely held religious beliefs.
If an employee cannot be vaccinated because of a disability, the company must work with the employee to determine whether an accommodation can be made to allow the employee to safely continue working without creating an undue hardship to the company.
If an employee refuses to get vaccinated because of a religious belief, a company must consider whether to offer an accommodation to the employee. Because the exemption is only available if it is tied to an employee’s “sincerely held” religious belief, a company may request information about the employee’s religious belief. For example, a company may request statements from the employee, religious materials describing a belief or practice, or statements from religious leaders to test whether the employee’s refusal to be vaccinated is a result of their sincerely held religious belief. For example, because Pope Francis has urged people to get vaccinated against Covid, Catholics will have a difficult time demonstrating that they should be granted an exemption to a company’s vaccine requirement. If an employee does establish that their refusal to get vaccinated is tied to a sincerely held religious belief, then the company must engage with the employee to determine whether an accommodation can be made without undue hardship to the company.