By Tory Daugherty, HR Consultant
Can an employer require employees to get COVID-19 Vaccines?
Many employers are mandating COVID-19 vaccinations for their workforce in accordance with Federal and state requirements and recommendations. As a result, we are seeing an uptick in requests for religious exemptions from employees. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) allows employers to require their employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19; however, it is important to note that they also require employers to provide reasonable accommodations for employees who do not get vaccinated for COVID-19 due to a disability or a sincerely held religious belief, practice, or observance.
What is a religious accommodation for a mandatory COVID-19 vaccine policy?
A religious accommodation is an adjustment that is made in employment expectations or requirements that enables an employee to follow sincerely held religious beliefs. These adjustments might include exemptions from certain company policies, events, or alternative scheduling.
What do employers need to know about religious accommodations?
The accommodation process for religious exemptions is complicated, and the EEOC’s definition of religion is broad, protecting beliefs, observances, and practices that may not be familiar to employers. It also includes both beliefs that are specific to an individual as well as individual interpretations of various belief systems. Therefore, employers are advised to assume the employee’s request for accommodation is made in good faith.
A step-by-step guide for processing religious accommodation requests for COVID-19 vaccine requirements
Similar to the accommodation process for disabilities, employers must enter into an interactive process with employees requesting a religious accommodation. Here are the recommended steps an employer should take when an employee requests a religious exemption from a mandatory COVID-19 vaccination policy:
- RELIGIOUS ACCOMMODATION POLICY.
Establish a documented, clear, and consistent process for administering employee requests. Each request should be in writing and should explain why they are requesting an exemption from the employee’s perspective.
- RELIGIOUS ACCOMMODATION REQUEST FORM.
Require documentation to support the request. This is best accomplished with a consistent form that you require for all employees who request an accommodation with the same questions to ensure equal and consistent treatment of all requests. This form should include a written narrative or other documents describing the religious belief or practice and how it relates to their objection to the vaccine. Be aware of fraudulent letters or documents from unrecognized online churches and organizations.
- THE INTERACTIVE PROCESS.
Enter into the interactive process with the employee. This may include requesting further information and discussing potential accommodations.
- Determine whether the religious belief, practice, or observance is sincerely held or is a personal or philosophical belief. It can be difficult for employers to discern religious beliefs from personal ones. Employers should generally assume that an employee’s religious beliefs are sincerely held and that statements and documentation are provided in good faith.
- Determine if the accommodation can be provided without causing undue hardship to your business. Undue hardship is one that would require an employer to bear more than a de minimis cost or burden.
- DOCUMENT! DOCUMENT! DOCUMENT!
Regardless of whether the accommodation is approved or denied, keep documentation and any other relevant information in case of a dispute and ensure future claims are handled equitably.
Consistency is key. While not all requests are the same, it’s important for employers to remain consistent in their process for all employee religious accommodation requests. Managers should be trained to recognize religious accommodation requests and know who to contact within the organization to handle them.