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How Should Employers Respond to Claims for Exemption from COVID-19 Vaccination Mandates?

If your company intends to institute a mandatory vaccination policy for its employees – or already has, you are almost certain to receive exemptions requests. Such requests can be based on medical grounds or based on the employee having recovered from a prior COVID-19 infection. Employees can also claim exemption based on religion.

It is important that your company understand its legal obligations when receiving such exemption requests. If a valid request for exemption is denied, employers can be liable for civil damages for unlawful discrimination under state or federal law. If the requested exemption is granted but no "accommodation" is offered, employers can still face significant liability. Denial of accommodations can include such things as restrictions on travel, where travel was previously allowed to the same employee, and other unreasonable restrictions or imposition of unreasonable requirements on the employee.

Employers unnecessarily expose themselves to significant civil liability when they fail to recognize and accommodate medical needs and religious beliefs. HR professionals are well aware that these accommodation requirements are deeply embedded in federal anti-discrimination law. Employers can avoid potential liability for vaccine mandates if they understand their legal obligations.

What should an employer do before announcing a mandatory vaccination policy?

Most importantly, an employer should be open and transparent about the employees’ rights when a mandatory vaccination policy is announced. Employers should not hesitate to inform employees of their basic human rights and their rights under Title VII and other anti-discrimination laws. These rights include the right to practice their religion without the employer’s interference, harassment, or other adverse actions.

According to the EEOC, an employer should start with the assumption that a request for a religious accommodation is legitimate and should be accommodated absent an undue hardship. At a minimum, an employer’s decision not to accommodate an employee’s request can result in costly litigation. Similarly, employers take a significant risk if they don’t take a requested exemption at face value. This is because, while an employer can probe into an employee’s requests and ask for supporting information, it can only do so the employer has “an objective basis for questioning either the religious nature or the sincerity of a particular belief, practice, or observance.”

Title VII prohibits discrimination on a protected basis “with respect to . . . compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment.” Title VII is violated when an employer with as few as 15 employees or supervisor explicitly or implicitly coerces an employee to abandon, alter, or adopt a religious practice as a condition of receiving a job benefit or privilege or avoiding an adverse employment action. The statute defines broadly “religion” as including “all aspects of religious observance and practice, as well as belief, unless an employer demonstrates that [it] is unable to reasonably accommodate....”

It’s no secret that employers find the current highly charged political environment difficult – especially when imposing vaccination requirements on employees.

The bottom line is that any employer implementing a mandatory vaccination policy needs to be prepared to handle claims of medical and religious exemptions and be prepared to offer reasonable accommodation to employees who make these requests.

It’s important that employers are prepared for vaccine exemption requests from employees. Although claims of exemption based on religion likely are new to many employers, religious claims for exemption and accommodation from vaccines are probably more common in than other types of claims. Although Title VII seems to make it easy for employers to deny requests for exemption based on an employee’s religious beliefs, the First Amendment provides much broader protection, encompassing an individual’s sincerely held religious belief – no matter how meritorious it is or isn’t.

If you’re an employer, supervisor or HR professional, be sure to consult competent legal counsel when implementing a vaccine mandate. You can avoid significant civil liability and expensive litigation if you follow the law. Most importantly, seek professional advice before summarily denying a request for a religious or medical exemption.

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