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Workforce Management

COVID-19 Vaccine Refusal: What Counts as an Exemption

One Minute Takeaway

  • Personal and political beliefs do not qualify employees for vaccination exemptions
  • Most medical exemptions are for those who are allergic to the vaccine ingredients
  • Requests for religious exceptions have recently surged, some are protected by law

Since the news broke about the federal government requiring employers with more than 100 employees to mandate vaccines in workplaces, there’s been an increase in employees searching for ways to legally refuse the COVID-19 vaccine, and still keep their jobs.

When it comes to the rules, so far, we know that OSHA has the authority to issue an emergency temporary standard (ETS) which makes it legal to fine businesses that have unvaccinated employees. Those that do not comply with new federal rules could be subject to pay up to $14,000 per violation. But even though some of the consequences have been shared, the exemption qualification rules from the government are not yet as clear.

Related Article: COVID-19 Vaccine Mandates: What HR Leaders Need to Know

How Does an Employee Legally Refuse a Vaccine?

Vaccine hesitancy is very common in the United States as many people have reasons not to get the vaccine. However, as it stands today, personal and political beliefs do not qualify employees for an exemption from the vaccine. Some individuals may qualify for medical and religious exemption.

And, because there is ambiguity about who can get an exception and who cannot, HR leaders are now in a challenging position to create workplace policies and procedures to manage the pile of requests for vaccine exemptions on their own. As you work to manage the requests for exemptions, be sure to consider the following information.

What Qualifies as a Medical Exemption?

Even though few employees may actually qualify for medical exemptions from the vaccine, these individuals are protected by the ADA or American Disabilities Act in workplaces with more than 15 employees.

Many medical experts have emphasized that vaccines are safe, even for patients with chronic conditions, but that doesn’t mean your employee may not require a special accommodation.

Currently, the most common medical exemptions are for those who are allergic to COVID-19 vaccine ingredients or have had a severe allergic reaction to the first shot (anaphylactic shock).

While the EEOC allows employers to require COVID-19 vaccines, “If a particular employee cannot meet such a safety-related qualification standard because of a disability, the employer may not require compliance for that employee unless it can demonstrate that the individual would pose a “direct threat” to the health or safety of the employee or others in the workplace.

Additionally, an employee with a disability who does not get vaccinated for COVID-19 must let the employer know that he or she needs an exemption from the requirement or a change at work. This is known as a reasonable accommodation.” (EEOC.gov)

To plan for the possibility of COVID-19 vaccination exemptions related to disability, employers should consider creating a policy and a procedure for review of whether the vaccination exemption would pose a direct threat to the workplace.

How Do Religious Exemptions Work?

Although many major religious denominations and institutions have voiced public support of vaccines against COVID-19, requests for religious exceptions have recently surged. Before you accept that letter from your employee’s online pastor, it’s important to know the facts.

  1. Employees who are seeking religious exemptions have the right to cite Title VII of the Federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, which requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations for employees who object to work requirements based on religious beliefs that are “sincerely held.”
  1. Similarly, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has specified that religious objections do not have to be recognized by an organized religion and can be beliefs that are new, uncommon or “seem illogical or unreasonable to others.”

What does this mean? This means that religious exemptions must be reviewed on a case-by-case basis. Employers and private businesses reserve the right to create policies and procedures that factor in the regulations above while also protecting the health and safety of other employees and customers. Consequently, employers reserve the right to ask further questions about an employee’s beliefs that are “sincerely held” in order to evaluate the origin of beliefs. This process should be well documented and handled by one person or a team of people in order to maintain consistency.

Details will continue to emerge about the vaccine mandate for employers. We’d suggest creating a mandatory vaccination policy and a procedure to manage vaccination exemption requests for medical or religious reasons that comply with ADA and Title VII rules. Ensure your managers and supervisors are trained and that the rules have been clearly communicated to employees.

As you continue to navigate the impact of COVID-19 on your workplace, Paycor is here to help with products and resources.

  • Our new Immunization Tracker allows employees to upload vaccination information.
  • This feature also allows employers to run immunization status reports.
  • Paycor’s HR Support Center offers SHRM-certified HR resources, to help you communicate and proactively plan.