On March 19, 2021, New Jersey adopted guidance from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and issued its own guidance permitting employers to require employees to receive the COVID-19 vaccination before returning to work. New Jersey’s guidance carves out three exemptions for which employees may qualify if their employer mandates the vaccine: (1) a disability; (2) a doctor’s advice not to receive the vaccine while pregnant or breastfeeding; or (3) a sincerely held religious belief. Employers must reasonably accommodate employees who qualify for an exemption unless doing so would impose an undue hardship.
Under New Jersey’s guidance, employers are permitted to request medical documentation to confirm exemptions 1 and 2, which must thereafter be maintained as confidential medical records. Employers may not question the validity of an employee’s religious beliefs unless there is an objective basis for doing so, and even then, the inquiry must be limited to the facts and circumstances supporting the request.
If an employee qualifies for one of the exemptions, employers must provide the employee with a reasonable accommodation for the mandatory vaccine policy, “unless doing so would impose an undue burden on their operations.” In making the determination of whether or not to grant the accommodation request, employers should be mindful of the safety of other employees, clients, and customers in considering what is reasonable. Such safety considerations must be based on objective, scientific guidance and not on unfounded assumptions. Reasonable accommodations for a mandatory vaccine policy may include working remotely or providing the employee with personal protective equipment.
Such mandatory vaccine programs may already be permissible for employers with a unionized workforce through an existing collective bargaining agreement.