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When employees won't get the shot: A legal expert on 2 possible COVID-19 vaccination exceptions

The current issue of Part B News features a story on what to do when you've required staff to get vaccinated against COVID-19 and some of them refuse to get the shot (subscription required). Here with some added perspective on the two primary reasons employees may refuse is Robert K. Neiman, a principal with the Much Shelist law firm in Chicago.
Can your employees refuse to be vaccinated against COVID-19 on religious grounds?
Even before the pandemic, the EEOC and courts nationwide recognized that employees—even health care employees—had a right to refuse to take a vaccine because of a sincerely held religious belief or a medical reason. Those exceptions apply to refusals to take the COVID-19 vaccine, too. Firing or otherwise disciplining employees who have a legitimate religious exemption violates federal civil rights laws; firing or otherwise disciplining employees who have a legitimate medical exemption violates the Americans With Disabilities Act.
What constitutes a genuine religious exception?
A sincerely held religious belief has to be based upon a recognized religion's tenets—generally, it can't be based on a religion headed up by your brother-in-law who signed up to become a clergyman online. Doctors and other employers may ask an employee asserting a religious exemption what religion they belong to and other general questions. If the employee's religion isn't one that the employer has heard of, and doesn't have a known opposition to vaccines, then it's probably time to call an employment lawyer to figure out what to do next.
What about a medical exception? 
A medical exemption from getting vaccinated works in the same way as a request for accommodation under the Americans With Disabilities Act. When an employee refuses to get vaccinated because of a medical reason, you can require the employee to have their doctor provide a letter explaining the basis for the medical exemption. Assuming that the medical reason is legitimate, then you need to have a talk with the employee about how you can reasonably accommodate their medical exemption from getting vaccinated in way that allows them to do everything that their job requires.
Again, this will probably require continuing to use masks and other PPE both for the duration of the pandemic and even after the pandemic is over. 
Blog Tags: compliance, COVID-19
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