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As Vaccinations Increase Across The Country – What Does It Mean For Employers?

With the FDA’s issuance of an Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) for multiple COVID-19 vaccines, and vaccines becoming more widely available, many U.S. employers, eager to safely transition employees back to work or transition workplaces back to normal, are considering implementing vaccine recommendations or mandates in the workplace. The fluidity of the pandemic has yielded yet another decision point for employers – can employees be required to obtain a COVID-19 vaccine as a condition of employment?

At this point, the answer is generally, yes—although there are a number of caveats, open questions, and policy decisions to keep in mind as vaccines become more widely available and federal, state, and local agencies and corresponding legal issues continue to morph and take shape. Here is a look at some of the employment-related considerations with mandating a COVID-19 vaccine in the workplace.

1. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

On December 16, 2020, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) issued a revised version of its ongoing COVID-19 guidance publication, “What You Should Know About COVID-19 and the ADA, the Rehabilitation Act, and Other EEO Laws,”  addressing questions related to the administration of COVID-19 vaccinations in an employment context. The new information, outlined in Section K of the publication, clarifies that employers may require, as a condition of employment, that employees receive the COVID-19 vaccine. However, there are many open questions and significant legal issues for employers to consider under the EEOC’s guidance. Some key takeaways for employers from the updated EEOC guidance include:

(a) The COVID-19 Vaccine is NOT a medical exam under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

First, the EEOC’s Guidance clarifies that the vaccine itself is NOT a medical exam. Under the ADA, “medical exams” which are a condition of employment must  be job related and consistent with business necessity or be necessitated by a direct threat in the workplace. The EEOC stated that by simply administering a COVID-19 vaccine, employers would not be seeking medical information from the employee and thus, this would not rise to the level of a “medical exam” under the ADA.

(b) Pre-screening Vaccination Questions MAY Implicate the ADA.

For employers who choose to implement a mandatory vaccine requirement, the EEOC guidance provides some additional cautions related to pre-screening questions (which are recommended by the CDC prior to administering a COVID-19 vaccine).

In order to pass muster under the ADA, the pre-screening questions must be “job-related and consistent with business necessity” and to meet this standard employers will need to have a “reasonable belief, based on objective evidence, that an employee who does not answer the questions and, therefore, does not receive a vaccination, will pose a direct threat to the health or safety  of her or himself or others.”

In assessing whether there is a “direct threat” the EEOC advises employers to conduct an individualized assessment in taking into considerations the following four factors: (i) the duration of the risk; (ii) the nature and severity of the potential harm; (iii) the likelihood that the potential harm will occur; and (iv) the imminence of the potential harm.

The EEOC makes clear that the concerns about the pre-screening questions will not implicate the ADA where (1) an employer has offered a vaccine on a voluntary basis (i.e. employees choose whether to be vaccinated), which would mean that an employee’s refusal to answer the questions, would only mean the employer could refuse to administer the vaccine; or (2) an employee receives an employer-required vaccine from a third party that does not have a contract with the employer (i.e. a pharmacy, broker or other health care provider), the ADA would not apply to pre-screening questions.

(c) Confidentiality Issues.

The EEOC also makes clear that the pre-screening questions (whether voluntary or mandatory) and the responses to those questions should be maintained as confidential information, in a separate file (i.e. not the personnel file), in accordance with the provisions of the ADA. Those employers who administer vaccines themselves, or contract with a third-party provider to administer vaccines, should also be wary of their obligations under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), as to  employee-provided information and vaccination records.

(d) Employee Proof of a COVID-19 Vaccine.

Employers may request and require employees to show proof of receipt of a COVID-19 vaccination. Such a question does not amount to a disability-related inquiry in and of itself. The EEOC cautions employers who ask “why” an employee has not or cannot receive a vaccine. These follow up questions, may elicit information about a disability and would need to be “job-related and consistent with business necessity” in accordance with the ADA. Employers who do wish to require that employees furnish proof of vaccination should instruct employees not to provide any medical information in connection with the vaccination record in order to avoid implicating the ADA.

(e) Disability-related Exemptions to a Mandatory Vaccine Requirement

The new EEOC guidance also provides some direction to employers for responding to employees who indicate they are unable to receive a vaccine due to a disability. The EEOC reiterates that employers can require that employees “not pose a direct threat to the health or safety of individuals in the workplace.” However, if a mandatory vaccine requirement has the effect of screening out individuals with disabilities, 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’”.

The EEOC instructs employers to conduct an individualized assessment of four different factors to determine whether a “direct threat” exists. These include considering: (1) the duration of the risk; (2) the nature and severity of the potential harm; (3) the likelihood that the potential harm will occur; and (4) the imminence of the potential harm.”

If an employer concludes there is a direct threat, the EEOC indicates that the employer may “exclude” the employee from the workplace, but cautions employers against terminating the worker without first considering whether there may be an accommodation available. The EEOC advises that employers should engage employees “in a flexible, interactive process to identify workplace accommodation options” and also notes that one factor that warrants consideration may be the prevalence of employees in the workplace who have already received the vaccine.

Practically speaking, it seems this analysis will still hinge on individual circumstances related to things like the nature of the employee’s disability, the work conditions, and the ability to mitigate potential hazards through job modifications such as increased social distancing, PPE, telework, etc.

Employees working in high-risk environments or with high-risk populations (i.e. food service and food processing, healthcare, nursing homes, and schools), may have fewer options for accommodating vaccine exemptions, especially given the risk surrounding the efficacy of PPE measures in industries requiring constant exposure and face-to-face close contact. But again, the EEOC guidance makes clear that the number of employees vaccinated will have a bearing on this analysis.

(f) Religious Exemptions to a Mandatory Vaccine Requirement

Similar to the disability-related exemptions, the EEOC guidance reiterates that employers who plan to require a vaccine also provide an exemption where the employee maintains a “sincerely held religious belief” or observance which prevents them from taking the vaccine. This standard is fairly broad and encompasses more than traditional organized religions, but the protection would not extend to employees who seek an exemption due to political beliefs, personal objections to vaccinations, or safety-related concerns with the vaccine. The EEOC notes that as in the case of the ADA, Title VII also allows employers to deny an employee’s request for an exemption to a mandatory vaccination if the employer can show an “undue hardship” by allowing the employee to forgo the vaccine. Again, the EEOC makes clear this would hinge on the individual circumstances applicable to each case but would largely depend on the employer’s ability to provide alternative protections for the employee, the rest of its workforce and, where necessary, members of the general public.

(g) Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA) Implications.

Lastly, the EEOC makes clear that simply administering the COVID-19 vaccine to employees or requiring employees to provide proof that they received the COVID-19 vaccine does not implicate Title II of GINA because it does not involve genetic information as defined by the law. Under Title II of GINA, employers may not use, acquire or disclose an employee’s genetic information in connection with their employment, subject to six narrow exceptions.

As with the ADA, pre-screening questions, or where an employee provides more than just proof of a vaccination may still implicate GINA. Accordingly, the EEOC advises that employers should avoid pre-screening questions which implicate genetic information or require employees to obtain the vaccine through their own means and simply provide proof of the same to their employer, without any extraneous medical information.

While the updated EEOC guidance provides certain clarification for employers contemplating workplace vaccination strategies, the exceptions and exemptions under the ADA and Title VII are fact-intensive and will vary widely. Employers who do intend to adopt mandatory vaccination programs are advised to review potential reasonable accommodations for disabilities and sincerely-held religious beliefs and strategize how they will respond to such requests in order to minimize legal exposure under Title VII and the ADA.

2.  Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

While OSHA has also not yet provided specific COVID-19 vaccination guidance, its longstanding position regarding the flu and other vaccines indicates support for employer mandates so long as employees are “properly informed of the benefits of vaccinations.” The agency has caveated this by clarifying that an employee who refuses a vaccine due to a medical condition that the employee reasonably believes would cause serious illness or death may still be protected by Section 11(c) of the OSH Act, which governs whistleblower claims based on workplace health and safety.

Furthermore, it is worth noting that in its interim guidance issued in May of 2020, OSHA had encouraged its own investigators to obtain the COVID-19 vaccination as soon as it becomes available. There is likewise widespread speculation that OSHA may look to apply the General Duty Clause, OSHA’s general citation standard, to issue citations to employers who fail to offer the COVID-19 vaccination to its workforce as an enhanced safety measure. As with the EEOC, additional guidance is expected to shed light on the direction of OSHA’s enforcement position on this topic.

3.  Workers’ Compensation.

On a similar note, what happens if an employer recommends or requires a COVID-19 vaccine for its employees and the employee is injured due to the vaccine?

Most likely, state workers’ compensation coverage would come into play to cover any physical injury, whether due to a vaccine side effect or other physical injury to the employee caused by the vaccine. This would generally be true in the case where an employer recommends, requires, pays for, or administers the COVID-19 vaccine at its worksite. On the flipside, workers’ compensation coverage would likely not apply in a scenario where an employee obtains a COVID-19 vaccine without the recommendation, mandate or sponsorship from the employer.

Typically, subject to some state-specific exceptions, workers’ compensation serves as the exclusive remedy for employees who sustain physical injuries within the course and scope of employment. In other words, an employee would be limited to pursuing workers’ compensation benefits and cannot pursue tort claims against the employer absent a showing of willful or more serious conduct. While workers’ compensation laws may apply to shield employers from tort claims (i.e. personal-injury type claims) brought by employees who sustain physical injuries as a result of an employer-sponsored COVID-19 vaccine, these same laws may not preclude tort claims against third party entities, such as the vaccine manufacturer.

  4.  National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).

Finally, there are labor considerations for both union and non-union employers in mandating a COVID-19 vaccine. For union employers, requiring a COVID-19 vaccine may be considered a mandatory subject of bargaining triggering an employer’s duty to bargain prior to implementing such a requirement. Employers should review any existing labor agreements for language which precludes or permits such a mandatory vaccination scheme. Second, non-union employers must also be mindful of how implementing a vaccine requirement could implicate Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), which provides employees the right to engage in “concerted activities” for the purpose of “mutual aid and protection.” Practically speaking, employees who join together to speak out for or against a mandatory vaccine requirement, who collectively create outside social media postings or other organized interoffice communications regarding the requirement, or simply discuss the employer-imposed requirement would be protected by federal labor law and generally, cannot be subject to discipline or termination as a result of this conduct. Notwithstanding, even if employees band together in concerted activity under the NLRA, and cannot be disciplined for that concerted activity, they could still be disciplined for refusing to take the vaccine, or even permanently replaced if they choose to go out on a work stoppage.

While the current legal landscape suggests employers, especially those in certain high-essential industries, may be able to require employees to obtain a COVID-19 vaccine, the legal landscape changes almost daily, and there are many open questions, potential public relations pitfalls, and employee morale issues with doing so. Until there is more guidance from the federal, state, and local level on this topic, and more widespread use and availability of the vaccine beyond the healthcare industry, employers may want to consider promoting rather than requiring a vaccine as a condition of employment just as they would a flu vaccine.