Following are key portions of EEOC guidance on mandatory vaccinations in the workplace addressing issues of potential exceptions or accommodations for medical, religious or other reasons under the laws it enforces.
Under the ADA, may an employer require a COVID-19 vaccination for all employees entering the workplace, even though it knows that some employees may not get a vaccine because of a disability?
Yes, provided certain requirements are met. Under the ADA, an employer may require an individual with a disability to meet a qualification standard applied to all employees, such as a safety-related standard requiring COVID-19 vaccination, if the standard is job-related and consistent with business necessity. If a particular employee cannot meet such a safety-related qualification standard because of a disability, the employer may not require compliance for that employee unless it can demonstrate that the individual would pose a “direct threat” to the health or safety of the employee or others in the workplace. A “direct threat” is a “significant risk of substantial harm” that cannot be eliminated or reduced by reasonable accommodation. 29 C.F.R. 1630.2(r). This determination can be broken down into two steps: determining if there is a direct threat and, if there is, assessing whether a reasonable accommodation would reduce or eliminate the threat.
To determine if an employee who is not vaccinated due to a disability poses a “direct threat” in the workplace, an employer first must make an individualized assessment of the employee’s present ability to safely perform the essential functions of the job. The factors that make up this assessment are: (1) the duration of the risk; (2) the nature and severity of the potential harm; (3) the likelihood that the potential harm will occur; and (4) the imminence of the potential harm. The determination that a particular employee poses a direct threat should be based on a reasonable medical judgment that relies on the most current medical knowledge about COVID-19. Such medical knowledge may include, for example, the level of community spread at the time of the assessment. Statements from the CDC provide an important source of current medical knowledge about COVID-19, and the employee’s health care provider, with the employee’s consent, also may provide useful information about the employee. Additionally, the assessment of direct threat should take account of the type of work environment, such as: whether the employee works alone or with others or works inside or outside; the available ventilation; the frequency and duration of direct interaction the employee typically will have with other employees and/or non-employees; the number of partially or fully vaccinated individuals already in the workplace; whether other employees are wearing masks or undergoing routine screening testing; and the space available for social distancing.
If the assessment demonstrates that an employee with a disability who is not vaccinated would pose a direct threat to self or others, the employer must consider whether providing a reasonable accommodation, absent undue hardship, would reduce or eliminate that threat. Potential reasonable accommodations could include requiring the employee to wear a mask, work a staggered shift, making changes in the work environment (such as improving ventilation systems or limiting contact with other employees and non-employees ), permitting telework if feasible, or reassigning the employee to a vacant position in a different workspace.
As a best practice, an employer introducing a COVID-19 vaccination policy and requiring documentation or other confirmation of vaccination should notify all employees that the employer will consider requests for reasonable accommodation based on disability on an individualized basis.
Under the ADA, if an employer requires COVID-19 vaccinations for employees physically entering the workplace, how should an employee who does not get a COVID-19 vaccination because of a disability inform the employer, and what should the employer do?
An employee with a disability who does not get vaccinated for COVID-19 because of a disability must let the employer know that he or she needs an exemption from the requirement or a change at work, known as a reasonable accommodation. To request an accommodation, an individual does not need to mention the ADA or use the phrase “reasonable accommodation.”
Managers and supervisors responsible for communicating with employees about compliance with the employer’s vaccination requirement should know how to recognize an accommodation request from an employee with a disability and know to whom to refer the request for full consideration. As a best practice, before instituting a mandatory vaccination policy, employers should provide managers, supervisors, and those responsible for implementing the policy with clear information about how to handle accommodation requests related to the policy.
Employers and employees typically engage in a flexible, interactive process to identify workplace accommodation options that do not impose an undue hardship (significant difficulty or expense) on the employer. This process may include determining whether it is necessary to obtain supporting medical documentation about the employee’s disability.
In discussing accommodation requests, employers and employees may find it helpful to consult the Job Accommodation Network (JAN) website as a resource for different types of accommodations. JAN’s materials about COVID-19 are available at https://askjan.org/topics/COVID-19.cfm. Employers also may consult applicable Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) COVID-specific resources. Even if there is no reasonable accommodation that will allow the unvaccinated employee to be physically present to perform his or her current job without posing a direct threat, the employer must consider if telework is an option for that particular job as an accommodation and, as a last resort, whether reassignment to another position is possible.
The ADA requires that employers offer an available accommodation if one exists that does not pose an undue hardship, meaning a significant difficulty or expense. See 29 C.F.R. 1630.2(p). Employers are advised to consider all the options before denying an accommodation request. The proportion of employees in the workplace who already are partially or fully vaccinated against COVID-19 and the extent of employee contact with non-employees, who may be ineligible for a vaccination or whose vaccination status may be unknown, can impact the ADA undue hardship consideration. Employers may rely on CDC recommendations when deciding whether an effective accommodation is available that would not pose an undue hardship.
Under the ADA, it is unlawful for an employer to disclose that an employee is receiving a reasonable accommodation or to retaliate against an employee for requesting an accommodation.
If an employer requires employees to get a COVID-19 vaccination from the employer or its agent, do the ADA’s restrictions on an employer making disability-related inquiries or medical examinations of its employees apply to any part of the vaccination process?
Yes. The ADA’s restrictions apply to the screening questions that must be asked immediately prior to administering the vaccine if the vaccine is administered by the employer or its agent. An employer’s agent is an individual or entity having the authority to act on behalf of, or at the direction of, the employer.
The ADA generally restricts when employers may require medical examinations (procedures or tests that seek information about an individual’s physical or mental impairments or health) or make disability-related inquiries (questions that are likely to elicit information about an individual’s disability). The act of administering the vaccine is not a “medical examination” under the ADA because it does not seek information about the employee’s physical or mental health.
However, because the pre-vaccination screening questions are likely to elicit information about a disability, the ADA requires that they must be “job related and consistent with business necessity” when an employer or its agent administers the COVID-19 vaccine. To meet this standard, an employer would need to have a reasonable belief, based on objective evidence, that an employee who does not answer the questions and, therefore, cannot be vaccinated, will pose a direct threat to the employee’s own health or safety or to the health and safety of others in the workplace. (See general discussion in Question K.5.) Therefore, when an employer requires that employees be vaccinated by the employer or its agent, the employer should be aware that an employee may challenge the mandatory pre-vaccination inquiries, and an employer would have to justify them under the ADA.
The ADA also requires employers to keep any employee medical information obtained in the course of an employer vaccination program confidential.
Under Title VII, how should an employer respond to an employee who communicates that he or she is unable to be vaccinated for COVID-19 (or provide documentation or other confirmation of vaccination) because of a sincerely held religious belief, practice, or observance?
Once an employer is on notice that an employee’s sincerely held religious belief, practice, or observance prevents the employee from getting a COVID-19 vaccine, the employer must provide a reasonable accommodation unless it would pose an undue hardship. Employers also may receive religious accommodation requests from individuals who wish to wait until an alternative version or specific brand of COVID-19 vaccine is available to the employee. Such requests should be processed according to the same standards that apply to other accommodation requests.
EEOC guidance explains that the definition of religion is broad and protects beliefs, practices, and observances with which the employer may be unfamiliar. Therefore, the employer should ordinarily assume that an employee’s request for religious accommodation is based on a sincerely held religious belief, practice, or observance. However, if an employee requests a religious accommodation, and an employer is aware of facts that provide an objective basis for questioning either the religious nature or the sincerity of a particular belief, practice, or observance, the employer would be justified in requesting additional supporting information. See also 29 CFR 1605.
Under Title VII, an employer should thoroughly consider all possible reasonable accommodations, including telework and reassignment. For suggestions about types of reasonable accommodation for unvaccinated employees, see question and answer K.6., above. In many circumstances, it may be possible to accommodate those seeking reasonable accommodations for their religious beliefs, practices, or observances.
Under Title VII, courts define “undue hardship” as having more than minimal cost or burden on the employer. This is an easier standard for employers to meet than the ADA’s undue hardship standard, which applies to requests for accommodations due to a disability. Considerations relevant to undue hardship can include, among other things, the proportion of employees in the workplace who already are partially or fully vaccinated against COVID-19 and the extent of employee contact with non-employees, whose vaccination status could be unknown or who may be ineligible for the vaccine. Ultimately, if an employee cannot be accommodated, employers should determine if any other rights apply under the EEO laws or other federal, state, and local authorities before taking adverse employment action against an unvaccinated employee
Under Title VII, what should an employer do if an employee chooses not to receive a COVID-19 vaccination due to pregnancy?
Under Title VII, some employees may seek job adjustments or may request exemptions from a COVID-19 vaccination requirement due to pregnancy.
If an employee seeks an exemption from a vaccine requirement due to pregnancy, the employer must ensure that the employee is not being discriminated against compared to other employees similar in their ability or inability to work. This means that a pregnant employee may be entitled to job modifications, including telework, changes to work schedules or assignments, and leave to the extent such modifications are provided for other employees who are similar in their ability or inability to work. Employers should ensure that supervisors, managers, and human resources personnel know how to handle such requests to avoid disparate treatment in violation of Title VII.
Is Title II of GINA [the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act] implicated if an employer requires an employee to receive a COVID-19 vaccine administered by the employer or its agent?
No. Requiring an employee to receive a COVID-19 vaccination administered by the employer or its agent would not implicate Title II of GINA unless the pre-vaccination medical screening questions include questions about the employee’s genetic information, such as asking about the employee’s family medical history. As of May 27, 2021, the pre-vaccination medical screening questions for the first three COVID-19 vaccines to receive Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) from the FDA do not seek family medical history or any other type of genetic information. See CDC’s Pre-vaccination Checklist (last visited May 27, 2021). Therefore, an employer or its agent may ask these questions without violating Title II of GINA.
The act of administering a COVID-19 vaccine does not involve the use of the employee’s genetic information to make employment decisions or the acquisition or disclosure of genetic information and, therefore, does not implicate Title II of GINA.
Is Title II of GINA implicated when an employer requires employees to provide documentation or other confirmation that they received a vaccination from a doctor, pharmacy, health agency, or another health care provider in the community?
No. An employer requiring an employee to show documentation or other confirmation of vaccination from a doctor, pharmacy, or other third party is not using, acquiring, or disclosing genetic information and, therefore, is not implicating Title II of GINA. This is the case even if the medical screening questions that must be asked before vaccination include questions about genetic information, because documentation or other confirmation of vaccination would not reveal genetic information. Title II of GINA does not prohibit an employee’s own health care provider from asking questions about genetic information. This GINA Title II prohibition only applies to the employer or its agent.