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EEOC Issues New Guidance for Employers on COVID-19 Vaccinations in the Workplace

On May 28, 2021, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) issued new guidance seeking to clarify significant questions regarding mandating vaccines for employees, reasonable accommodation, and employee incentives for vaccination.

In considering mandatory vaccination policies in the workplace, the EEOC advised employers to be mindful of whether certain employees may face greater barriers to obtaining vaccination, and to make sure that any mandatory vaccination program would not disparately affect any protected classes. The EEOC confirmed that an employer may require all employees physically entering the workplace to receive a COVID-19 vaccination, so long it continues to comply with reasonable accommodation obligations under the ADA and Title VII for employees seeking an exemption. Notably, the EEOC remains silent on an employer’s ability to mandate vaccination of remote workers. Employers who implement a mandatory vaccination policy must ensure that the standard is job-related and consistent with  business necessity.

 Reasonable accommodation may be required for an employee who declines vaccination due to a disability or sincerely held religious belief, unless doing so would pose an undue hardship on the operation of the employer’s business or create a direct threat to the health of others. Employees who are not vaccinated because of pregnancy may also be entitled to adjustments (under Title VII) if the employer makes modifications or exceptions for other employees. These modifications may be the same as the accommodations made for an employee based on disability or religion. (Note, however, that the May 28th EEOC guidance says employers should be alert to and should follow any updated CDC guidance, and on June 29th, the CDC issued new guidance that essentially encourages pregnant persons to be vaccinated, because they are at above-average risk for Covid-19 infection. While the new CDC guidance may not have the effect of reversing the EEOC’s guidance on this point, it at least may muddy the waters.)

The EEOC reminded employers that when determining if an employee poses a “direct threat,” the employer must make an individual assessment of the employee’s ability to perform the essential functions of the job and rely on reasonable medical judgment regarding the most current medical knowledge about COVID-19, including factors such as current community spread. Further considerations of the employer’s assessment of a “direct threat” may include: the proximity of the employee to co-workers; whether they work indoors or outdoors; available ventilation; direct interaction with others; how many nearby individuals are partially or fully vaccinated; and whether employees are wearing masks, social distancing, or undergoing routine testing. For employees receiving an exemption from a workplace mandatory vaccination program, employers may continue requiring the use of face coverings, social distancing, and periodic COVID-19 testing. Other examples of reasonable accommodations include: modified work shifts; telework; or a reassignment.

The EEOC has further clarified that employers may use incentives to encourage employee vaccinations so long as the incentive is not tied to the employee receiving the vaccine from the employer itself, or any other entity with which the employer may have a contract. Employers may provide incentives upon proof of vaccination from a third party. Employers may not offer incentives to employees for vaccinations received by family members from the employer or its agent. Employers are not allowed to require employees to have family members become vaccinated and must not penalize employees if family members decide not to become vaccinated. While employers are allowed to require documentation or other confirmation of vaccination, the ADA requirements for confidentiality of employee medical information applies such documentation.

Though the EEOC has provided some guidance on these issues, many speculate there will be a variety of legal issues that may come up as employers begin to implement return-to-work policies and mandatory vaccination policies in the months to come.