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Federal agency says employers can legally require workers to get COVID vaccine

The guidance came just days before the CDC issued updated guidance about the vaccine for people with severe allergies

Justin Tallis - Pool / Getty Images

A federal agency declared last week that employers can legally mandate that employees receive the coronavirus vaccine, or be prohibited from entering the workplace if they refuse.

The guidance came as millions of Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine doses were distributed across the United States, with the first inoculation occurring early last Monday. However, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has already published updated guidance on the vaccine following several allergic reactions across multiple states.

What are the details?

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issued guidance on Wednesday saying that requiring workers to receive the COVID-19 vaccine does not violate the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990, which prohibits employers from requiring "medical examinations like blood tests, breath analyses and blood-pressure screening" to obtain medical information on workers, the New York Times reported.

"If a vaccine is administered to an employee by an employer for protection against contracting COVID-19, the employer is not seeking information about an individual's impairments or current health status and, therefore, it is not a medical examination," the EEOC said.

However, the agency said questions asked prior to vaccine administration could complicate matters.

Although the administration of a vaccination is not a medical examination, pre-screening vaccination questions may implicate the ADA's provision on disability-related inquiries, which are inquiries likely to elicit information about a disability. If the employer administers the vaccine, it must show that such pre-screening questions it asks employees are "job-related and consistent with business necessity."

What about religious exceptions?

For employees whose "religious belief, practice, or observance prevents" them from receiving the vaccine, the EEOC said that employers must provide a "reasonable accommodation" for workers "unless it would pose an undue hardship under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act."

Religious convictions or disabilities, of course, would not permit an employer to fire a worker who refused the COVID-19 vaccine.

"If an employee cannot get vaccinated for COVID-19 because of a disability or sincerely held religious belief, practice, or observance, and there is no reasonable accommodation possible, then it would be lawful for the employer to exclude the employee from the workplace," the EEOC said.

"This does not mean the employer may automatically terminate the worker," the agency added.

One last thing…
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