Employers’ latest quandary: COVID-19 vaccines

One expert says the legal outlook for HR is “clear as mud.”
By: | September 16, 2020 • 2 min read
(Photo by Ricardo Ceppi/Getty Images)

The eventual COVID-19 vaccine is primed to create a legal showdown for many employers.

According to a summer Gallup poll, 35% of Americans would not get a free, FDA-approved vaccine if it were available today.

This places companies in a predicament. How can they protect their employees if more than one-third are unwilling to take the vaccine?

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The default rule in the American workplace—excluding employers in Montana and Puerto Rico—is to observe at-will employment, which generally means employees can be terminated for any reason if it’s not illegal or prohibited by employment contracts or collective bargaining agreements, says Alissa Kranza, attorney at Lieser Skaff Alexander law firm.

See also: Navigating the legal question of workplace returns

“Employers need to stay informed of the particular laws in their state and look at their particular employee contract, agreement or handbook to determine what specific situations will allow for termination,” she says. “Ultimately, those contracts will dictate whether or not termination is allowed for refusing a vaccine.”

“Employers need to stay informed of the particular laws in their state.” Alissa Kranza, attorney at Lieser Skaff Alexander

Since the virus travels across state lines, there’s also been talk of Congress mandating a vaccine under the commerce clause, but Kranza believes this is unrealistic. She says employee rights would be at risk and it could trigger an avalanche of lawsuits.

Unfortunately, there isn’t a uniform practice for what HR can do. Every industry is different. So are their employees and jobs. She suggests that HR evaluate the makeup of its workforce and review current policies or processes for handling exemption requests. For those needing a religious exemption, it’s not the religion itself that matters, she explains, but the sincerity of the employee’s belief in those practices, even if they’re not widespread.

Employees may also refuse a vaccination under OSHA or ADA laws if it threatens to do more harm than good. Some may take biologics or drugs that weaken the immune system, for example, which increases their risk of catching the virus, becoming seriously ill or even dying.

In such scenarios, Kranza says, protected workers will require accommodations, such as working remotely, or being reassigned to other jobs where they can use a plexiglass screen, social distance, wash their hands or wear a mask.

See also: How should HR handle political talk in the new workplace? 

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Meanwhile, HR is better off making vaccines optional versus mandating them, which tends to sour or terminate employee relationships, she says, adding that HR can launch a pro-vaccine campaign. However, if someone has a bad reaction to the vaccine, that could result in a worker’s compensation claim.

Looking ahead, Kranza says, HR’s path is “clear as mud.”

“There are a lot of [people] who want to push this as though things are clear and employers can force everyone [to get vaccinated] and there won’t be any backlash,” she says. “We’re a big country and will get different reactions.”

Carol Patton is a contributing editor for HRE who also writes HR articles and columns for business and education magazines. She can be reached at hreletters@lrp.com.