With the rise of the Delta variant, COVID-19 continues to pose a threat to the nation’s workplaces. As a result, employers concerned about their employees’ health and their legal liabilities have largely looked to state and federal authorities for guidance.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) maintain that the best ways to prevent the spread of the virus are to get vaccinated and wear masks in shared indoor environments, such as schools or offices. This guidance comes even as many people remain skeptical of the available vaccines. As a result, people on both sides of the vaccine debate have started to ask: Can employers require their employees to get vaccinated?
Yes, employers can require employees to get vaccinated.
At this time, employees in Maryland and Virginia are not legally mandated to get vaccinated. Neither the states nor the federal government have passed laws forcing workers to get vaccinated. However, according to the information posted by their Departments of Health, both states defer to the workplace guidance provided by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).
The EEOC enforces the nation’s workplace anti-discrimination laws, and it says that vaccine mandates do not run afoul of such laws, so long as:
- Employers apply their mandates to all workers evenly
- The mandates clarify the safety standards they intend to address and allow for alternate ways to meet those standards
- The mandates allow certain exceptions, such as for disability and sincerely held religious beliefs
- Employers make every reasonable effort to accommodate these exceptions
The EEOC offers several examples of the sorts of accommodations employers might make. These include:
- Having employees wear masks
- Utilizing social distancing
- Adjusting an employee’s shifts
- Permitting employees to telework
- Reassigning the employee
How can unvaccinated employees seek reasonable accommodations?
Ultimately, the question of what is reasonable depends on the nature of the exception request and the job duties. This means that disputes may need further review. The EEOC makes certain to point out that employers may not use COVID-19 guidelines or vaccine mandates as a smokescreen for other forms of discrimination. It encourages employers to remember that some groups of employees may face more challenges than others when it comes to vaccinations. It recommends that employers communicate the process by which employees who want an exception may seek reasonable accommodations.
At the same time, the EEOC says that employees who want accommodations should request them. The resolution of such requests typically requires ongoing interaction between the employee and employer.