Essex Richards attorney Kristen Finlon

Can Employers Make the COVID-19 Vaccine Mandatory?

by: Kris Finlon

As the rates of COVID-19 vaccinations are picking up across the country, it’s probably fair to say that we are all hoping that the vaccinations will help us return to the normal patterns of our lives.  Employers and employees alike have begun to consider the impact of the vaccines on the workplace.  Many employers, hoping to continue or resume normal operations, have been considering the question of whether to make the COVID-19 vaccine a mandatory requirement for employees, and if they can legally require employees to receive it.

Why Employers May Want to Require Vaccination

There are a number of reasons for an employer to consider requiring that employees receive a COVID-19 vaccination.  Businesses certainly have an interest in protecting the safety of their customers and clients, particularly if they serve vulnerable populations, as well as providing a safe working environment for their employees.  Additionally, small businesses in particular may wish to require vaccination as a way to avoid the impact of employee absences due to illnesses and quarantines. 

Can Employers Legally Require Vaccination?

So employers may have plenty of reasons they want to require employees to get vaccinated as a requirement of their job.  The question is, can they?

As of right now, the answer appears to be that they probably can, with certain exceptions.  In December 2020, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) published an update to its website regarding this question.  The EEOC reminded employers that the question of mandatory vaccination should be considered in light of laws prohibiting discrimination against employees on the basis of religion or disability.  Where an employee objects to a mandatory vaccination on the basis of either a sincerely held religious belief or a disability that prevents the employee from receiving a vaccination, the employer may need to undergo a reasonable accommodation analysis to determine whether it will be possible to accommodate that employee’s needs.  If an employee has asserted an objection on these grounds, the employer should consult with legal counsel to be sure that the requirements of the federal discrimination statutes, as well as any pertinent state discrimination statutes, are properly observed. 

Other exceptions may arise with respect to labor unions.  Businesses employing union members under the terms of a collective bargaining agreement should consult with counsel regarding whether the terms of the collective bargaining agreement have any effect on a proposed policy regarding vaccines.

Employers should also be aware of developments in state law on this subject.  As of the time of this writing, numerous state legislatures have advanced bills relating to employer-mandated vaccines.  In many states, legislatures have sought to prohibit employers from requiring vaccinations. 

Can North Carolina Employers Require Vaccinations?

The North Carolina General Assembly has not restricted employers’ ability to require employees to receive COVID-19 vaccinations as a requirement for their job at this time.  However, employers should stay apprised of developments in state law going forward prior to implementing vaccination policies.

In summary, many businesses may be able to require employees to receive COVID-19 vaccinations as a condition of their employment.  However, the law in this area is changing rapidly, and businesses considering imposing vaccination requirements should consult with legal counsel to make sure that they are compliant with both state and federal laws.