Can employers require COVID-19 vaccine?

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CLEVELAND (WJW)– Many of the first to receive injections of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccines are frontline hospital employees, the majority of whom are not being required to get it.

“We do not require the flu vaccine or the COVID vaccine for any employee, strongly encourage it for any employee, especially frontline employees but no we do not require it of the employee,” said Chris Parrish, Sr. vice president at Aultman Health Foundation in Canton, where the first doses were administered on Tuesday.

But as more of the vaccines become available to the general public, there is growing interest over whether any employer, university or school district actually can make the vaccine a requirement.

Employment attorneys said they can, although there are exceptions.

“We do know from the EEOC guidance last spring that a job offer can be rescinded, a job offer can be tabled pending various scenarios involving COVID, ” Akron employment attorney Nancy Holland told FOX 8 News on Wednesday.

Holland is a former trial attorney for the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

She said although there have been numerous directives issued from the EEOC throughout the year regarding COVID-19 and the workplace, she is still looking for any directive regarding vaccines.

“This is uncharted in the strictest way of looking at it,” Holland said. But it is not altogether new.

“Something like five to 10 years ago when area hospital systems began requiring patient care public contact people to receive flu vaccines so in a sense we have been here before, but of course this is a very different thing,” Holland said.

For many years, school districts have also mandated vaccines for children coming into the elementary grades. There are exceptions.

Union contracts may include a provision that prevents employers from requiring vaccinations as a condition of employment.

Holland and other employment attorneys said people can decline the vaccine for well-documented health reasons or for strongly held religious beliefs. Following our interview, the EEOC released a new document dealing with employers requiring vaccines. It mirrors what Holland already stated.

“As to beliefs that this is part of a larger conspiracy or some kind of mind control experiment, last I checked, this would probably not fall into one of the sincerely-held religious belief exceptions,” Holland said.

Employers can make accommodations for those employees or students who have an acceptable reason not to take the vaccine like allowing them to work or study from home.

The best guess is that most employers will do what they can to create incentives or to strongly encourage vaccination rather than mandate it.

“Much of the sort of opinion-based discussion of this concept of mandatory COVID vaccines talks about the need for educating and then encouraging, as opposed to directives that give people nothing more by way of context,” she added.

Those who get the vaccine are given cards to show that they have it, but there remain questions over whether it may violate privacy laws if an employer demands to see it.

“Although we may not be personally fans of having to carry a laminated card in our wallet that identifies us as having received a vaccine, I believe what we can expect is an acceptance of this that this will be potentially something that is required for international travel.”

If employers simply ask for a “yes” or “no” answer on an honor system about whether an employee has had the vaccine and an employee is not truthful, the employer may have the same right to terminate the employee as they would if the employee lied on a job application.

Holland said employment law regarding COVID-19 will evolve and employers along with school districts and universities will have the responsibility to consider science, and what is in the best interest of the safety and health of greater majority of employees.

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