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Workplace Vaccine Mandates: Can Employers Require Workers to Get the Shot?

Hospitals and nursing homes.  The UC and CSU college systems. And as of this Monday, the state of California. Employers are putting COVID-19 vaccine requirements into place, and it’s getting attention. But what happens if workers refuse?

Federal guidance out this week suggests the law is on the side of employers. Vaccination can be considered a “condition of employment,” akin to a job qualification.

That said, employment lawyers believe many businesses will want to meet hesitant workers half-way. Below are some common questions regarding workplace vaccine requirements. Here’s a quick breakdown. Click on the links below to skip to a specific section:

Can my employer require me to get the shot? Which employers have ordered a vaccine requirement? What are the alternatives to a vaccine mandate? What are options for employees who refuse to get inoculated? Could workplace mandates turn the tide on vaccine hesitancy?

Can Employers Require Workers to Get the Shot?

Yes. Private companies and government agencies can require their employees to get vaccinated as a condition of working there. Individuals retain the right to refuse, but they have no ironclad right to legal protection.

“Those who have a disability or a sincerely held religious belief may be entitled to a reasonable accommodation under civil rights laws, so long as providing that accommodation does not constitute an undue hardship for the employer,” said Sharon Perley Masling, an employment lawyer who leads the COVID-19 task force at Morgan Lewis.

Employees who don’t meet such criteria “may need to go on leave or seek different opportunities,” she added.

The U.S. Justice Department addressed the rights of employers and workers in a legal opinion this week. It tackled an argument raised by some vaccine skeptics that the federal Food, Drug & Cosmetic Act prohibits employers from requiring vaccination with shots that are only approved for emergency use, as coronavirus vaccines currently are.

Department lawyers wrote that the law in question requires individuals be informed of their “option to accept or refuse administration” of an emergency use vaccine or drug. But that requirement does not prohibit employers from mandating vaccination as “a condition of employment.”

The same reasoning applies to universities, school districts, or other entities potentially requiring COVID-19 vaccines, the lawyers added. Available evidence overwhelmingly shows the vaccines are safe and effective.

The Justice Department opinion followed earlier guidance from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that federal laws prohibiting discrimination in the workplace “do not prevent an employer from requiring all employees physically entering the workplace to be vaccinated for COVID-19.”

The EEOC listed some cases in which employers must offer exemptions. People who have a medical or religious reason can be accommodated through alternative measures. Those can include getting tested weekly, wearing masks while in the office, or working remotely.

Californians will be able to acquire a digital record of their coronavirus vaccination to access spaces that require proof of inoculation. (Chandan Khanna/AFP via Getty Images)

Who Is Requiring the Vaccine?

In the Bay Area, the city of San Francisco announced a vaccine mandate earlier this month. City employees in San Francisco that work in high-risk settings must be vaccinated before September 15.

Both San Francisco and Santa Clara, along with Contra Costa County, encourage private employers to mandate vaccine requirements for on-site workers.

The Department of Veterans Affairs on Monday became the first major federal agency to require health care workers to get COVID-19 vaccine. Also on Monday, the state of California said it will require millions of health care workers and state employees to show proof of a COVID-19 vaccination or get tested weekly.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki says the Biden administration is holding the door open to mandates for other federal workers. “We will continue to look at what steps we need to take for our workforce,” she said Tuesday.

In the corporate world, the push for vaccines has been more piecemeal. Delta and United airlines are requiring new employees to show proof of vaccination. Goldman Sachs requires its employees to disclose their vaccination status but does not require staffers to be vaccinated.

Michelle S. Strowhiro, an employment adviser and lawyer at McDermott Will & Emery, said there are costs for employers requiring vaccines. There’s the administrative burden of tracking compliance and managing exemption requests. Claims of discrimination could also arise.

But ultimately, the rise in the delta variant and breakthrough cases in fully vaccinated people have “served as extra motivation for employers to take a stronger stand on vaccination generally,” she said. “Employers are going to be looking toward vaccine mandates more and more.”

Are There Alternatives to Mandates?

Instead of requiring vaccines, some companies try to entice workers by offering cash bonuses, paid time off and other rewards. Walmart, for example, is offering a $75 bonus for employees who provide proof they were vaccinated. Amazon is giving workers an $80 bonus if they show proof of vaccination, and new hires get $100 if they’re vaccinated.

What Are Options for Employees Who Refuse to Get Inoculated?

Most employers are likely to give workers some options if they don’t want to take the vaccine. For example, New York City and California have imposed what’s being called a “soft mandate” — workers who don’t want to get vaccinated can get tested weekly instead.

If an employer does set a hard requirement, employees can ask for an exemption for medical or religious reasons. Then, under EEOC civil rights rules, the employer must provide “reasonable accommodation that does not pose an undue hardship on the operation of the employer’s business.” Some alternatives could include wearing a face mask at work, social distancing, working a modified shift, COVID-19 testing or the option to work remotely, or even offering a reassignment.

Will Workplace Mandates Turn the Tide on Vaccine Hesitancy?

It’s too early to tell.

“Every employer that decides to mandate vaccination paves the way for other employers to feel safer doing so,” said Masling.

A recent legal decision may help move the needle. In June, a federal district court in Texas rejected an attempt by medical workers to challenge the legality of Houston Methodist Hospital’s vaccine mandate. The court found such a requirement in line with public policy.

Dorit Reiss, a law professor specializing in vaccine policies at the University of California Hastings College of the Law, said, “more businesses will have confidence they can mandate the vaccine.”

She believes most companies will go the route of a soft mandate, with alternatives for employees who remain reluctant.

“I think it’s a reasonable option,” she said.

KQED’s Carlos Cabrera-Lomelí contributed to this post.

Copyright 2021 KQED