By Chris Avcollie
In 2021 there is a new status symbol that will determine who is “in” and who is “out” in many social situations. It’s not fashion or cars and it’s not your number of followers on social media. The new hot status for 2021 will be: “Vaxed” or “Un-Vaxed.”
As the FDA approved Covid-19 vaccines become more widely distributed over the next few months, the question of who is “Vaxed” and who is “Un-Vaxed” will start to take on tremendous importance. As new strains of Covid-19 spread we can easily imagine restaurants or stores with “Vaxed Only!” signs on their doors. One’s vaccination status could soon determine one’s access to schools, public conveyances, businesses, and churches. It may also determine where one can work.
As businesses and institutions grapple with the effects of the pandemic the wide availability of effective vaccines will force the issue of whether to require their employees to receive the vaccine in order to keep their jobs. (See related article Employer Mandated Covid-19 Vaccinations – Can They Do That?). For businesses in customer-facing industries like hospitality or food service, the question is pressing. Will anyone want to go to a barber that was not vaccinated? Wouldn’t customers feel safer eating at a restaurant where all employees are vaccinated? While many are awaiting the vaccine with anticipation, many have concerns about the vaccines and do not want them. Some are medically unable to receive a vaccine and others have personal or even religious objections to them. What right does an employee have to refuse an employer’s mandated Covid-19 vaccine? Will employees be fired for refusing? What can employer’s do to respond to valid and deeply held objections to a blanket vaccine requirement?
The basic rule is that in an employment at will situation an employer can require a vaccine as a condition of employment. Almost all employment in the US is employment at will. If an employee is a member of a union, then a vaccine mandate would be negotiated by the union, but would likely become a requirement at the end of that process. Even where an employee has an individually negotiated employment contract, those agreements often contain provisions that allow the employer to change company policies and job requirements, particularly for worker safety. Thus, in most all situations, an employer can require its workers to be vaccinated.
If it strikes you as outrageously unfair that employers can require you to undergo an intrusive medical procedure against your will and your only recourse is to give up your livelihood and sole means of support for you and your children, you are not alone. While most Americans are clamoring for this particular vaccine there is also widespread concern. Many women of child-bearing age have expressed objections based on the lack of longitudinal research on the effects of the vaccines on the reproductive system. Many people of color have expressed objections to the vaccine based on historic precedents of medical experimentation on minority populations. If the ability to force vaccinations on employees under threat of economic ruin seems to be too much power for employers, we can thank the “at will employment rule.” This is the great default principle of American employment law. It holds that employers can essentially do (or not do) anything they want to their employees provided they do not violate specific statutes. Under this rule, as long as they stay within the law, employers are a law unto themselves.
There are a few exceptions to this general rule allowing employer mandated vaccines. While the employment at will rule allows employers to require vaccines as a condition of employment, their vaccination policies must comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII) and other state and federal workplace laws. The question then becomes when do these laws prevent an employer’s vaccine requirement?
One limitation on an employer’s right to force vaccinations covers employees who cannot be vaccinated due to a disability. The ADA requires that if an employer’s vaccine requirement will force the termination of a worker who cannot be vaccinated due to a disability, the employer must show that the unvaccinated worker will pose a “direct threat” or will create a serious risk of “substantial harm” to the worker, co-workers, or the public. Only if that risk is significant and it cannot be eliminated or reduced by some reasonable accommodation can the disabled employee be terminated. The EEOC has provided some guidance on how employers should assess the potential risk of an unvaccinated employee including: assessing the duration, severity, likelihood, and imminence of the potential harm. If an accommodation such as masks, or a work from home option would reduce the risk, then the disabled employee should be accommodated.
While this exception is fairly easy to understand on paper, it might not be so easy to implement in the workplace. What if the only way to mitigate the risk and to accommodate the one disabled employee is to require all other employees and all customers to wear masks in the facility? Right now everyone expects to wear masks all the time anyway but what about when the mask restrictions could be lifted due to mass vaccinations? Will that still be a “reasonable accommodation?”
A second exception to the employer’s right to force vaccinations on their workers is carved out in Title VII. An employer must accommodate an employee’s sincerely held religious objection to a vaccine unless the accommodation causes “undue hardship” to the employer. Sounds fair enough. The trouble with this rule is that the definition of “undue hardship” is any accommodation that has more than a “de minimis” or “absolutely minimal” cost or burden to an employer. How will courts apply this rule in the example above, where a single employee with a religious accommodation can continue to work only if all employees and customers are provided PPE? As this example suggests, the “de minimis” standard could be very difficult to meet in the workplace.
While the EEOC is trying to develop a set of workable guidelines that accommodates employee’s rights under existing laws like the ADA and Title VII, there are no accommodations available for the employee who objects to vaccination based on personal concerns like racial disparities or lack of research on fertility effects. For most workers who object to vaccination for a host of personal reasons, there will be no option for dissent. “Shoot up and shut up” will be the rule for many.
There are times when public safety and the protection of our economy should take precedence over personal choice. I personally intend to get vaccinated as soon as possible whether my employer wants me to or not. (Carey & Associates, P.C. will leave it to the employee’s discretion about whether to vaccinate or not). It is important however, to consider the power dynamics and the broad implications of the employment at will rule when it invades the province of our bodily integrity and personal conscience. In a world where politicians are willing to substitute facts for politically convenient fantasies, it is easy to imagine these power dynamics leading to much more extensive invasions of personal choice. In the short term at least, “Vaxed” is likely to be the new “Black.”
If you would like more information about this topic, please contact our employment attorneys at Carey & Associates, P.C. You can also send an email to email@example.com or call (203) 255-4150. If you liked this article, please leave us a review HERE.