Throughout the COVID pandemic, healthcare employers have navigated the challenge of balancing safety concerns with employee requests for religious exemption from the vaccine. Since lifting the stay of the CMS rule requiring certain healthcare workers to receive a COVID-19 vaccine, the US Supreme Court (Court) has refused to enjoin state and city vaccine mandates for workers who seek religious exemptions from such mandates. On March 7, 2022, the full Court rejected, without comment, an emergency application for an injunction that was previously denied by Justice Sotomayor to prevent enforcement of the New York City Department of Education’s COVID-19 mandate against suspended workers who refused vaccination based on religion. In the wake of continued challenges to vaccine mandates based on religion, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”), released guidance on March 1, 2022 that addresses questions related to religious objections to vaccinations in the workplace. Healthcare employers should ensure that assessment of requests for religious exemptions for vaccine mandates comports with EEOC guidance.
EEOC’s Role in COVID Guidance and Compliance
The EEOC helps enforce Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”) which prohibits employment discrimination based on protected characteristics, including religion. Part of Title VII provides for religious exemptions from an employer requirement that conflicts with an employee or a job applicant’s sincerely held religious beliefs, practices, or observances. In those instances, the employer should grant an exemption (or accommodation) unless they can show they cannot reasonably accommodate without harboring an undue hardship on their business operations.
Guidance from the EEOC on Religious Accommodations
Among previously provided guidance, the EEOC provided the additional information for employers to consider while fielding religious accommodation requests from employees and job applicants:
- When an employee has a religious objection to receiving a COVID-19 vaccination, they do not need to use any “magic words” such as “religious accommodation” or “Title VII;” however, the employees must explain the conflict and the religious basis for it. These same guidelines apply if an employee has a religious conflict with getting a particular brand of a vaccine. The EEOC recommends, as a best practice, that employers should provide employees and applicants with information about whom to contact and the procedures for requesting a religious accommodation.
- Generally, employers should proceed on the assumption that a request for religious accommodation is based on a sincerely held religious belief, practice, or observance. “However, if an employer has an objective basis for questioning either the religious nature or the sincerity of a particular belief, the employer would be justified in making a limited factual inquiry and seeking additional supporting information.” Under Title VII, the definition of “religion” protects both traditional and nontraditional religious beliefs, practices, and observances. Employers should not deny requests just because they are unfamiliar.
- To show an “undue hardship,” Courts have found one exists where a religious accommodation would violate federal law, impair workplace safety, diminish efficiency in other jobs, or cause coworkers to carry the accommodated employee’s share of potentially hazardous or burdensome work. However, the Supreme Court has held that requiring an employer to bear more than a “de minimis” cost to accommodate a request for a religious exemption constitutes an undue hardship. Regardless, employers should thoroughly consider all possible reasonable accommodations, including telework and reassignment.
- Employers do not need to grant all religious accommodation requests because they have previously granted some. Additionally, the determination of whether a proposed accommodation imposes an undue hardship depends on specific factual context.
- Employers may choose which accommodation to offer when there is more than one that would resolve the conflict. However, an accommodation is no longer reasonable if it requires an employee to accept a reduction in pay or some other loss of a benefit or privilege of employment (and there is another reasonable alternative that does not require the loss or impose an undue hardship on the business).
- The employer’s obligation to provide religious accommodations is a continuing obligation that may change overtime. Employers may discontinue accommodations if it is no longer utilized for religious purposes or if the accommodation starts to present an undue hardship on the company. However, employers must consider if there are alternative accommodations. Employers should discuss their concerns with an employee before revoking any religious accommodation.
If you have questions about the EEOC’s guidance for religious exemptions, or other accommodation questions related to the COVID-19 vaccine, contact Courtney Steelman, Tracey O’Brien, or your Husch Blackwell attorney.
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