On November 16, 2021, Governor Spencer J. Cox signed SB2004 into law, placing limitations and additional obligations on Utah employers that have implemented vaccine or testing requirements on employees. The law was passed in the Utah Legislature’s second special session of 2021.
Relief from Employer Vaccination Requirements/Mandates
SB2004 requires employers to relieve an employee from a COVID-19 vaccination requirement/mandate under certain conditions: (1) if receiving the vaccine would be injurious to the health and wellbeing of the employee or prospective employee; (2) if receiving the vaccine would conflict with a sincerely held religious belief, practice, or observance of the employee or prospective employee; or (3) if receiving the vaccine would conflict with a “sincerely held personal belief” of the employee or prospective employee.
While the first two exceptions are similar to accommodations employers are obligated to consider under federal law, the third, which allows relief from a vaccine mandate if it conflicts with a “sincerely held personal belief,” expands employee protections from an employer’s vaccine mandate well beyond any right existing under federal law. The new law provides no definition or further explanation regarding what amounts to a “sincerely held personal belief,” leaving employers to assume any personal belief is sufficient or risk running afoul of the law.
Utah does not go as far as some other states that have enacted provisions meant to outlaw employer vaccine mandates altogether. Accordingly, employers may still mandate vaccination as a condition of employment so long as they provide the relief from such a requirement when an employee establishes one of the exceptions in the law. In order to be relieved from an employer’s requirement to receive or show proof of vaccination, the employee or prospective employee must “submit to the employer a statement” indicating that receiving the vaccine would fall into one of the categories described above. The law also mandates that no adverse action can be taken against an employee because of an act the employee makes in accordance with the law. The new law defines adverse action as the refusal to hire, termination, demotion, or reduction of an employee’s wages. However, the law states that reassignment of an employee, or termination of employment if reassignment is not practical, are not adverse actions.
The law does not apply to employers with fewer than 15 employees that can establish a nexus between the vaccination requirement and the employee’s assigned duties and responsibilities. What might establish a nexus between the vaccination requirement and the employee’s assigned duties and responsibilities for employers with fewer than 15 employees is also unspecified.
For employers that have not mandated vaccinations as a condition of employment, but may have required regular testing or have established a “vaccine or test” requirement for employees, the law obligates the employer to pay for the testing requirements placed on employees.
The law also has implications on recordkeeping practices related to employee vaccinations. SB2004 states that employers may not “keep or maintain a record or copy of an employee’s proof of vaccination” unless it is otherwise required by law or an established business practice or industry standard requires otherwise. While barring an employer from maintaining a record or copy of proof of vaccination, the law specifically states that it “does not prohibit an employer from recording whether an employee is vaccinated.”
Accordingly, the law does not appear on its face to prohibit an employer from requesting proof of vaccination in order to verify vaccination status as long as employers do not retain a copy of the employee’s proof of vaccination. That said, it is not entirely clear and some employers may choose to simply accept an employee’s representations on the issue in order to avoid running afoul of the law altogether. The law also does not specifically address any potential arguments that an employer is not maintaining a copy of the proof of vaccination if a third-party vendor is the actual entity in possession of the vaccination record provided by the employee. However, employers that use third-party vendors for vaccination screening and to verify proof of vaccination should proceed with caution if their practices include maintaining copies of the records at issue.
The inclusion of the exception to the recordkeeping requirement when an employer is “otherwise required by law” also raises the question whether the recent OSHA ETS is sufficient to except companies from that requirement if the employer is subject to the ETS requirements. However, given that the ETS is currently enjoined, employers should proceed with caution in using the OSHA ETS as a basis for maintaining records in violation of the Utah statute, and consult legal counsel on the current status of the OSHA ETS and potential implications on compliance with the Utah law. Given that certain provisions of the law are in conflict with the OSHA ETS, the fate of the ETS in the courts may determine whether certain Utah statutory provisions are enforceable against Utah employers.
SB2004 states that an “employer” subject to the requirements of the law does not include a person subject to a regulation by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services regarding a COVID-19 vaccine rule impacting certain healthcare organizations. Additionally, “federal contractors” are not considered employers for purposes of the statute, but who qualifies as a federal contractor is not defined in the law. Whether the exclusion for federal contractors means any and all federal contractors, or only those subject to the Biden administration’s September 9, 2021 Executive Order 14042: Ensuring Adequate COVID Safety Protocols for Federal Contractors, is not entirely clear. That said, because the Utah Legislature chose not to tie the term federal contractor directly to the subset of federal contractors subject to the federal contractor mandate, it likely means the term was intended to be interpreted broadly.
SB2004 indicates that the statute is effective “upon approval by the governor” if “approved by two-thirds of all the members elected to each house....” Both houses of the Utah legislature approved the bill by greater than the required margin, and Governor Spencer Cox signed the bill on November 16, 2021. Thus, SB2004 is now binding law.
Employers with ongoing questions related to SB2004 should consult with legal counsel to ensure their current practices are in compliance with the new requirements.