The controversy over COVID-19 vaccine mandates in the workplace continues growing and human resources are sounding the alarm on how employers should approach the matter. While the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and impending OSHA regulations will provide some cover to employers who want their employees to get vaccinated, they need to make sure that they follow certain steps in dealing with those who refuse to have a jab, won’t say if they are vaccinated or are claiming a religious or medical exemption from getting inoculated. The California employment law firm of Shaw Law Group LLC. recently held a webinar on a number of friction points that could get employers in hot water. Here are some tips to avoid getting sued:
If you require your staff to disclose their vaccination status, treat those who refuse to divulge their status as unvaccinated. There is no point in continuing to hound someone about giving the information if they don’t want to. Just assume they are unvaccinated for the purposes of your office rules.
If you have set rules requiring your workers to be vaccinated, do not automatically put someone who won’t get vaccinated on a leave of absence if that is your policy. Instead, treat it like an Americans with Disabilities Act request and enter into a meaningful discussion if they request accommodation.
During this time, you have to consider alternative accommodations, such as requiring them to always wear a mask at work and submit to weekly testing.
If you are going to accommodate workers who don’t get vaccinated, you as the employer are obligated to cover the costs of such accommodations (like those in the above bullet point). That also applies to employees who refused to get vaccinated on religious or medical grounds.
Have a process in place for handling requests for accommodations. A request for religious accommodation can put the employer in a quandary since they don’t want to require proof of what part of the person’s religion requires them not to get vaccinated. Shaw Law Group warns: “And, do not question the sincerity of an employee’s stated religious belief, unless you have an ‘objective’ reason to do so.”
There are no laws or regulations requiring employers to provide a “reasonable accommodation” for political, social or secular personal beliefs that may affect why an employee refuses to get vaccinated.
If you have an employee who refuses to participate in the accommodation process and provide documentation backing up their religious or medical exemption request, deny the request.
HIPAA Privacy Rule considerations
Meanwhile, the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office for Civil Rights has issued guidance regarding how the HIPAA Privacy Rule affects employees’ disclosures of their COVID-19 vaccination status. Employers can require employees to disclose whether they have received the COVID-19 vaccine, according to the guidance. That includes requiring them to disclose their status to a client or another third party like a vendor. Why is this? HIPAA’s Privacy Rule does not regulate the health information an employer can request from its employees as part of the terms and conditions of employment. Employers who require staff to provide proof of vaccination status are required to keep all documentation or confirmation of vaccination status confidential, under this rule. Any such documentation must not be stored in the employees’ personnel files and must be kept separately. Finally, your employees are free to disclose their vaccination status to other employees, customers, vendors or trade partners, as the Privacy Rule does not apply to such circumstances.
As more Americans get vaccinated, there is also a significant portion of them that will continue refusing to get inoculated for a number of reasons. To avoid being sued for overstepping your authority as an employer, if you are requiring vaccinations, make sure you put in place procedures for handling requests for religious or medical accommodation. You’ll also need to decide how to handle employees who won’t divulge their vaccination status or are refusing vaccination on grounds other than religious or medical reasons. Finally, if you decide not to require staff to get vaccinated, decide how you will accommodate unvaccinated workers in the workplace, such as requiring full-time masking and weekly COVID-19 testing.