Fedweek

Jackson State University police officer Tony Taylor watches as Jackson-Hinds Comprehensive Health Center nurse Maggie Bass, left, gives him a dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine at an open vaccination site sponsored by the university and the medical center in the Rose E. McCoy Auditorium at Jackson State University in Jackson, Miss. Taylor admitted he procrastinated a long time about getting the vaccine, but thought it was time to step up and receive the vaccine.

The EEOC has updated and expanded its guidance on accommodating employees — including federal workers — that object to workplace vaccine mandates for religious reasons, including stating that in limited situations an employer may revoke any exceptions it grants.

The guidance is the latest in a series of interpretations of the Civil Rights Act’s requirement to provide “reasonable accommodations” for an employee’s “sincerely held religious belief” unless doing so would create an “undue hardship” on the employer.

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Those standards typically have been applied in situations such as requests for changes in work schedules to observe religious holidays or waivers of dress codes to allow for religious garb; their application to a policy such as a vaccine mandate is less well defined.

The only accommodation required under the administration’s policy for granting exceptions on religious (or medical) grounds from the federal workplace vaccine mandate is to make eligible employees subject to stricter safety protocols while onsite. That guidance further says that “in some cases, the nature of the employee’s job may be such that an agency determines that no safety protocol other than vaccination is adequate. In such circumstances, the agency may deny the requested accommodation.”

The new EEOC guidance says that an employer must assess undue hardship “by considering the particular facts of each situation and will need to demonstrate how much cost or disruption the employee’s proposed accommodation would involve. An employer cannot rely on speculative hardships when faced with an employee’s religious objection but, rather, should rely on objective information.”

“Certain common and relevant considerations during the COVID-19 pandemic include, for example, whether the employee requesting a religious accommodation to a COVID-19 vaccination requirement works outdoors or indoors, works in a solitary or group work setting, or has close contact with other employees or members of the public (especially medically vulnerable individuals). Another relevant consideration is the number of employees who are seeking a similar accommodation (i.e., the cumulative cost or burden on the employer),” it says.

“When an employer is assessing whether exempting an employee from getting a vaccination would impair workplace safety, it may consider, for example, the type of workplace, the nature of the employee’s duties, the number of employees who are fully vaccinated, how many employees and nonemployees physically enter the workplace, and the number of employees who will in fact need a particular accommodation.”

“A mere assumption that many more employees might seek a religious accommodation to the vaccination requirement in the future is not evidence of undue hardship, but the employer may take into account the cumulative cost or burden of granting accommodations to other employees,” it adds.

Further, an employer “has the right to discontinue a previously granted accommodation if it is no longer utilized for religious purposes, or if a provided accommodation subsequently poses an undue hardship on the employer’s operations due to changed circumstances. As a best practice, an employer should discuss with the employee any concerns it has about continuing a religious accommodation before revoking it and consider whether there are alternative accommodations that would not impose an undue hardship.”

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2021 Federal Employees Handbook