As we have discussed in previous Coronavirus-related blog posts, employers have a general duty to provide a safe and healthy workplace that is free from serious recognized hazards where possible (meaning that such hazards are either nonexistent, eliminated, or reduced to a safe or acceptable level). While most regions have tiered or priority programs in which newly-released COVID-19 vaccines will only be made available to certain age groups or industry sectors after higher-risk individuals are vaccinated, as the vaccines are made more widely available, “essential” employers and employers who may be planning to resume or increase the scope of their on-premises operations may see vaccination as an important tool to ensure the maximum level of safety within their workplaces.
These employers likely have many questions about COVID-19 vaccines, such as whether they may be able to require employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19 as a condition to being permitted at the workplace, how a vaccination program implicates disability and other related privacy issues and laws, and whether not requiring such vaccinations (or leaving it up to employees) could open them up to potential liability.
Addressing some of these concerns, the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) recently released guidance for employers regarding workplace vaccine mandates (see Section K). While the EEOC guidance does not make any blanket rule regarding the permissibility of mandatory vaccinations, it does give recommendations on how an employer should navigate the various concerns that arise in administering a vaccination program. (But be aware that state health departments may release guidance or rules different from the EEOC and that union workers in particular may have collective bargaining agreements containing particular rules that must be taken into account.)
Vaccines are not Medical Examinations Under the ADA, but Employers Should be Careful with Inquiries Surrounding a Vaccine
The EEOC guidance initially provides that the administration of Coronavirus vaccines is not considered a “medical examination” under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), but that employers should be careful when posing any pre-screening vaccination questions to their employees that might implicate the ADA’s rules regarding inquiries which are likely to elicit information about an employee disability. Any pre-screening questions (i.e. to determine whether there is a medical reason that would prevent the employee from receiving the vaccine) must be job-related and consistent with business necessity – an employer must have a reasonable belief, based on objective evidence, that an employee that does not answer pre-screening questions and does not receive the vaccine will pose a direct threat to the health or safety of herself or others. Though the EEOC has previously stated that “based on the guidance of the CDC and public health authorities […] the COVID-19 pandemic meets the direct threat standard,” this assessment may change moving forward, and an employer’s response to the “direct threat” concern will likely differ depending on industry and other workplace contexts. In workplaces with significant worker density or customer contact, the threat is generally considered greater than in workplaces with limited interpersonal contact or the ability to work from home. Under the guidance, these concerns apply equally to requests for an employee to show proof of a COVID-19 vaccine – the request by itself is not a disability-related inquiry, but any questions asking for reasons for not obtaining a vaccine may be.
The guidance identifies two circumstances in which disability-related screening questions can be asked of employees without needing to satisfy the “job-related and consistent with business necessity” requirement. First, if the vaccination program is voluntary rather than mandatory, an employee’s decision to answer screening questions is also voluntary. In such case, if an employee declines to answer screening questions an employer can decline to administer the vaccine, but the employer cannot retaliate against that employee in any manner for her decision. The second circumstance is when employees receive an employer-required vaccination from a third party not under contract with the employer, such as a pharmacy. However, the guidance cautions that any employee medical information obtained in the course of a vaccination program must be kept confidential by the employer, and that employers should advise employees not to provide medical information to the employer when providing proof of vaccination.
If an Employee Cannot Receive the Vaccine due to Disability or Religious Belief, Employers Must Try to Make Accomodations Where Feasible
Per the guidance, if an employee indicates that she is unable to receive a COVID-19 vaccination because of a disability, employers must conduct an individualized assessment of four factors in determining whether there is a direct threat to the health or safety of others in the workplace – 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. An employer cannot exclude an unvaccinated employee from the workplace unless there is no way to provide a reasonable accommodation to that employee that will eliminate or satisfactorily reduce the threat without undue hardship to the employer. If such a threat cannot be reduced to an acceptable level, the employer can forbid the employee’s physical presence at the workplace. However, this does not mean the employer may automatically terminate the employee – in some cases, the employee may be able to work remotely or may be eligible to take leave under various Coronavirus-related legislation, state law, or the employer’s own policies. Employers should be sensitive to accommodation requests by employees and should engage in an interactive process that takes into account the nature of the industry, the employee’s role, CDC or other health official guidance regarding the current prevalence and severity of Coronavirus outbreaks, and whether an accommodation poses significant expense or difficulty to the employer.
The same standards and practices apply if an employee’s sincerely held religious belief prevents the employee from receiving the vaccine – while an employer should assume that a professed belief is sincerely held, if there is an objective basis for questioning the claimed belief, the employer may be justified in requesting additional information.
Further, the guidance refers to FDA literature providing that particularly because the COVID-19 vaccine is available under an Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) instead of traditional FDA approval, any person may opt out of receiving the vaccine. As such, even if it is unclear whether disability or religious concerns motivate an employee’s decision to decline a vaccine, an employer should still likely make whatever reasonable accommodations are possible based on individualized assessments of the four factors described above.
The Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA) is not Implicated by Employer Administration of a Coronavirus Vaccine
The guidance provides that because the COVID-19 vaccines, even though they use mRNA technology, do not involve the use of genetic information to make employment decisions or require the employer’s acquisition or the employee’s disclosure of employees’ genetic information. However, as with disability concerns, employers should be careful to avoid pre-screening questions that specifically seek to obtain “genetic information” about their employees, which can include information about family medical history.
Practical Impacts for Employers Based on the Guidance
Based on the foregoing, employers, depending on the industry and the threat that unvaccinated workers may pose in a particular workplace, may find it easier to encourage but not necessarily require Coronavirus vaccinations, and, if vaccinations are required, employers may find it easier to have employees obtain the vaccines from third parties rather than the employer administering the vaccines. Employers who do decide to create a vaccination program should create a thoughtful, formal process that both demonstrates reasonable efforts to maintain a workplace free of “direct threats” given the context of the business and takes the various health and privacy-related laws into account. Protocols should be well-documented, including pre-screening questions and opt-out situations but, again, documentation must be held confidentially and employee inquiries should be narrow. In some industries (for example, the California health care industry), employers are required to offer certain vaccines to their employees free of charge (and to provide technical information to employees regarding the vaccine itself), though it is unclear whether that requirement would be expanded to all California employers with respect to the COVID-19 vaccine.
An employer with employees who decline to take the vaccine may wish to have those employees sign a statement acknowledging the risks to that employee in making that decision, similar to the declination statement required in health care workplaces in California, and/or a liability waiver. The employer may also want to post prominent signage or bulletins in its workplace regarding its Coronavirus protocols (which is already required in many instances) that includes some manner of information about the business’ vaccination policy in order to allow customers and others who enter the premises to be informed. While such documentation may not eliminate liability, it may help to reduce it.
As always, the law surrounding Coronavirus issues in the workplace is constantly evolving. The foregoing is not intended to be an exhaustive representation of federal, state, and local laws and directives regarding COVID-19, but is rather general information about some of the EEOC’s latest positions and how employers might be able to utilize those positions in the context of the particulars of their own workplaces. Employers should always consult with the experienced attorneys before taking steps to implement a vaccination policy. Conkle, Kremer & Engel attorneys stay up to date and are ready to help employers understand and implement practices regarding the Coronavirus vaccine in their particular workplace circumstances.