Introduction: The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission
The United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) is a federal agency responsible for administering and enforcing the federal employment laws that make it illegal to discriminate, harass, or retaliate against certain employees in the workplace. On December 16, 2020, the EEOC issued guidelines addressing the applicability of various equal employment opportunity (“EEO”) laws to the availability of COVID-19 vaccinations. The guidelines are presented in a question-and-answer format and can be found on the EEOC’s website.
Generally, the EEOC stated that “EEOC laws do not interfere with or prevent employers from following CDC [Center for Disease Control] or other federal, state, and local public health authorities’ guidelines and suggestions.” In other words, employers can require their employees to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. However, there are some notable exceptions to this allowance, and there are many things employers should take into consideration when deciding whether to require employees to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. The EEOC addressed a number of these issues in their questions and answers, some of which are discussed herein.
Title VII and Vaccinations
The EEOC addressed specific questions regarding the applicability of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended, (“Title VII”), and the COVID-19 vaccination. The biggest concern noted by the EEOC is whether mandatory vaccinations run afoul Title VII’s protection against discrimination on the basis of religion. Among others, one of the questions asked was, “[i]f 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?” The EEOC stated that “[o]nce an employer is on notice than 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.”
Courts have instructed employers to assume that an employee’s religious belief, practice, or observance is “sincerely held” because the definition of “religious” is broad and protects beliefs, practices, and observances with which the employer may be unfamiliar. Thus, employers should accommodate most, if not all, religious beliefs, practices, and observances. Accommodations for receiving the COVID-19 vaccine could include, but are not limited to, wearing a mask, social distancing, isolation, or a modified work schedule. However, if the accommodation would cause the employer to incur more than a minimal cost or burden on the operation of the company, then the employer may not have to accommodate an employee’s religious belief, practice, or observance.
According to the EEOC, if an employee cannot get the COVID-19 vaccine because of a sincerely held religious belief, practice, or observance, and there is no reasonable accommodation available, then it would be lawful for the employer to terminate that employee. However, the EEOC also advises employers to determine whether the employee has additional rights available through other laws.
If you feel your employment rights have been violated, or if you have any other questions regarding the same, please contact the experienced Birmingham employment law attorneys at Michel | King. You can contact us either online or by calling us at (205) 319-9724. We are here to serve you!