EEOC Updates Guidance on COVID Vaccines: Mandatory Vaccinations Permitted, With Some Exceptions

Arent Fox
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Arent Fox

Both practical and legal issues will need to be resolved, but as of today, the EEOC has signaled that mandatory COVID vaccinations are lawful for the vast majority of employees.
 

On December 16, 2020, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) updated its COVID-19 Technical Assistance Questions and Answers to include information about COVID-19 vaccinations. This has been a hot topic for employers because of the recent emergency use authorization by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) of vaccines developed by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna. The updated Guidance is found in Section K of the EEOC’s “What You Should Know About COVID-19 and the ADA, the Rehabilitation Act, and Other EEO Laws.”

Since last spring, the EEOC issued multiple updates advising employers how to integrate the potentially severe health and safety threat from COVID-19 while remaining compliant with workplace anti-discrimination laws, including the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA); Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII), the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) and the Genetic Information Non-Discrimination Act (GINA). Employees are also protected under other federal and state laws.

Here are the key takeaways from the updated Guidance.

K.1. For any COVID-19 vaccine that has been approved or authorized by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), is the administration of a COVID-19 vaccine to an employee by an employer (or by a third party with whom the employer contracts to administer a vaccine) a “medical examination” for purposes of the ADA? (12/16/20)

EEOC has indicated that administration of an FDA approved vaccine is not a medical examination. The EEOC defines a medical examination as “a procedure or test usually given by a health care professional or in a medical setting that seeks information about an individual’s physical or mental impairments or health.” For example, this included blood pressure or cholesterol screening; vision tests; x-rays, CAT scans, and MRIs.

EEOC states that while the administration of a COVID vaccine is not a medical examination, the pre-screening vaccination questions may implicate the ADA provision on disability-related inquiries. If the employer administers the vaccine itself or engages a third-party to do so, the employer must show that the pre-screening questions are “job-related and consistent with business necessity.”

K.2. According to the CDC, health care providers should ask certain questions before administering a vaccine to ensure that there is no medical reason that would prevent the person from receiving the vaccination. If the employer requires an employee to receive the vaccination from the employer (or a third party with whom the employer contracts to administer a vaccine) and asks these screening questions, are these questions subject to the ADA standards for disability-related inquiries? (12/16/20)

Pre-vaccination medical screening is likely to elicit disability information. That means that such questions, whether asked by the employer or its agent, are “disability-related” under the ADA. The employer must demonstrate that the pre-screening questions are “job-related and consistent with business necessity.” In order to comply with this standard, the employer must have a reasonable belief, based on objective evidence, that an employee who does not answer the pre-screening questions and is not vaccinated, will pose a “direct threat” to the health or safety of himself or others. A direct threat is “a significant risk of substantial harm to the health or safety of the individual or others that cannot be eliminated or reduced by reasonable accommodation.”

There are two circumstances in which disability-related screening questions may be asked without needing to satisfy the “job-related and consistent with business necessity” standard. First, if the employer offers the vaccination to employees on a voluntary basis, the pre-screening questions must also be voluntary. An employer may not retaliate, threaten, or intimidate an employee who refuses to answer the screening questions, but they will likely not receive the vaccine. Second, if an employee receives the vaccine from a third-party unrelated to the employer, such as their own medical provider or a pharmacy, the ADA requirement that the questions be “job-related and consistent with business necessity, is inapplicable.

K.3. Is asking or requiring an employee to show proof of receipt of a COVID-19 vaccination a disability-related inquiry? (12/16/20)

No, simply asking employees for proof of vaccination is not a disability-related inquiry. But, if the employer asks follow-up questions, such as why the employee was not vaccinated, this may elicit information about a disability. Any such questions must be “job-related and consistent with business necessity.” Employers should warn their employees not to provide any medical information that may be contained in a document that provides proof of vaccination.

K.4. Where can employers learn more about Emergency Use Authorizations (EUA) of COVID-19 vaccines? (12/16/20)

Employers should consult the FDA web site for up to date information on vaccines issued an EUA. Also, this information is typically included in a patient fact sheet at the time the vaccine is administered. The FDA EUA page is here.

K.5. If an employer requires vaccinations when they are available, how should it respond to an employee who indicates that he or she is unable to receive a COVID-19 vaccination because of a disability? (12/16/20)

The ADA allows an employer to have a qualification standard that includes “a requirement that an individual shall not pose a direct threat to the health or safety of individuals in the workplace.” However, if a safety-based qualification standard, such as a vaccination requirement, screens out or tends to screen out an individual with a disability, the employer must show that an unvaccinated employee would pose a direct threat due to a “significant risk of substantial harm to the health or safety of the individual or others that cannot be eliminated or reduced by reasonable accommodation.” 29 C.F.R. 1630.2(r).

Employers should conduct an individualized assessment of four factors in determining whether a direct threat exists: the duration of the risk; the nature and severity of the potential harm; the likelihood that the potential harm will occur; and the imminence of the potential harm. A conclusion that there is a direct threat would include a determination that an unvaccinated individual will expose others to the virus at the worksite. If an employer determines that an individual who cannot be vaccinated due to disability poses a direct threat at the worksite, the employer cannot exclude the employee from the workplace, or take any other action—unless there is no way to provide a reasonable accommodation (absent undue hardship) that would eliminate or reduce this risk so the unvaccinated employee does not pose a direct threat.

If there is a direct threat that cannot be reduced to an acceptable level, the employer can exclude the employee from physically entering the workplace, but the employer may not automatically terminate the worker. Employers will need to determine if any other rights apply under the EEO laws or other federal, state, and local authorities. For example, if an employer excludes an employee based on an inability to accommodate a request to be exempt from a vaccination requirement, the employee may be entitled to accommodations such as performing the current position remotely. This is the same step that employers take when physically excluding employees from a worksite due to a current COVID-19 diagnosis or symptoms; some workers may be entitled to telework or, if not, may be eligible to take leave under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, under the FMLA, or under the employer’s policies.

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 the request should be referred for consideration. Employers and employees should engage in a flexible, interactive process to identify workplace accommodation options that do not constitute an undue hardship (significant difficulty or expense). This process should include determining whether it is necessary to obtain supporting documentation about the employee’s disability and considering the possible options for accommodation given the nature of the workforce and the employee’s position. The prevalence in the workplace of employees who already have received a COVID-19 vaccination and the amount of contact with others, whose vaccination status could be unknown, may impact the undue hardship consideration.

Employers may rely on CDC recommendations when deciding whether an effective accommodation that would not pose an undue hardship is available, but as explained further in Question K.7., there may be situations where an accommodation is not possible. When an employer makes this decision, the facts about particular job duties and workplaces may be relevant. Employers also should consult applicable Occupational Safety and Health Administration standards and guidance. Employers can find OSHA COVID-specific resources here.

It is unlawful for employers to disclose that an employee is receiving a reasonable accommodation or retaliate against an employee for requesting an accommodation.

K.6. If an employer requires vaccinations when they are available, how should it respond to an employee who indicates that he or she is unable to receive a COVID-19 vaccination because of a sincerely held religious practice or belief? (12/16/20)

Once an employer is on notice that an employee’s sincerely held religious belief, practice, or observance prevents the employee from receiving the vaccination, the employer must provide a reasonable accommodation for the religious belief, practice, or observance unless it would pose an undue hardship under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. Courts have defined “undue hardship” under Title VII as having more than a de minimis cost or burden on the employer.

EEOC guidance explains that because the definition of religion is broad and protects beliefs, practices, and observances with which the employer may be unfamiliar, the employer should ordinarily assume that an employee’s request for religious accommodation is based on a sincerely held religious belief. If, however, an employee requests a religious accommodation, and an employer has 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.

K.7. What happens if an employer cannot exempt or provide a reasonable accommodation to an employee who cannot comply with a mandatory vaccine policy because of a disability or sincerely held religious practice or belief? (12/16/20)

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. This does not mean the employer may automatically terminate the worker. Employers will need to determine if any other rights apply under the EEO laws or other federal, state, and local authorities.

Title II of the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA) and Vaccinations

K.8. Is Title II of GINA implicated when an employer administers a COVID-19 vaccine to employees or requires employees to provide proof that they have received a COVID-19 vaccination? (12/16/20)

No. Administering a COVID-19 vaccination to employees or requiring employees to provide proof that they have received a COVID-19 vaccination does not implicate Title II of GINA because it does not involve the use of genetic information to make employment decisions, or the acquisition or disclosure of “genetic information” as defined by the statute. This includes vaccinations that use messenger RNA (mRNA) technology, which will be discussed more below. As noted in Question K.9. however, if the administration of the vaccine requires pre-screening questions that ask about genetic information, the inquiries seeking genetic information, such as family members’ medical histories, may violate GINA.

Under Title II of GINA, employers may not (1) use genetic information to make decisions related to the terms, conditions, and privileges of employment, (2) acquire genetic information except in six narrow circumstances, or (3) disclose genetic information except in six narrow circumstances.

Certain COVID-19 vaccines use mRNA technology. This raises questions about genetics and, specifically, about whether such vaccines modify a recipient’s genetic makeup and, therefore, whether requiring an employee to get the vaccine as a condition of employment is an unlawful use of genetic information. The CDC has explained that the mRNA COVID-19 vaccines “do not interact with our DNA in any way” and “mRNA never enters the nucleus of the cell, which is where our DNA (genetic material) is kept.” (See here for a detailed discussion about how mRNA vaccines work). Thus, requiring employees to get the vaccine, whether it uses mRNA technology or not, does not violate GINA’s prohibitions on using, acquiring, or disclosing genetic information.

K.9. Does asking an employee the pre-vaccination screening questions before administering a COVID-19 vaccine implicate Title II of GINA? (12/16/20)

Pre-vaccination medical screening questions are likely to elicit information about disability, as discussed in Question K.2., and may elicit information about genetic information, such as questions regarding the immune systems of family members. It is not yet clear what screening checklists for contraindications will be provided with COVID-19 vaccinations.

If the pre-vaccination questions do not include any questions about genetic information (including family medical history), then asking them does not implicate GINA. However, if the pre-vaccination questions do include questions about genetic information, then employers who want to ensure that employees have been vaccinated may want to request proof of vaccination instead of administering the vaccine themselves.

GINA does not prohibit an individual employee’s own health care provider from asking questions about genetic information, but it does prohibit an employer or a medical provider working for the employer from asking questions about genetic information. If an employer requires employees to provide proof that they have received a COVID-19 vaccination from their own health care provider, the employer should warn employees not to provide genetic information as part of the proof. As long as this warning is provided, any genetic information the employer receives in response to its request for proof of vaccination will be considered inadvertent and therefore not unlawful under GINA.

Takeaways

Employers have been anxiously awaiting FDA approval of COVID vaccines. Now that two vaccines have been given EUA by the FDA, and others are likely to be approved as well, employers must consider whether to mandate employee vaccination or wait and see. Employers that are functioning remotely with little or no impact on productivity and able to do so for the foreseeable future may decide to delay imposing a vaccination mandate until more medical information is available. Other employers, such as those in retail, construction, or manufacturing, are likely to move ahead quickly with a vaccination mandate to mitigate the economic impact of the pandemic. Both practical and legal issues will need to be resolved, but as of today, the EEOC has signaled that mandatory COVID vaccinations are lawful for the vast majority of employees.

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