How To Handle The Employee Who Refuses To Get Vaccinated for COVID-19

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Yesterday, the Biden administration announced that the Labor Department will issue a regulation requiring companies with 100 or more employees to ensure their workforces are either “fully vaccinated” or test negative for Covid-19 at least once a week. The regulation will be issued by OSHA, most likely in the form of an Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS). When enforcing the ETS, OSHA could fine non-complying businesses up to $14,000 per violation. We anticipate that OSHA will issue the ETS in the next few weeks. We also anticipate that there will be challenges made to the ETS and the authority of the federal government to mandate vaccines.

This is in addition to the expansion of the emergency regulations requiring vaccinations for nursing home workers to include hospitals, dialysis facilities, ambulatory surgical settings, and home health agencies, among others, as a condition for participating in the Medicare and Medicaid programs.

The bottom line is that over 80 million private-sector workers are expected to be covered by a COVID-19 vaccine mandate. And some of those workers are going to refuse to get vaccinated, mandate or not. How does an employer deal with an employee who refuses to be vaccinated?

First, find out if the employee has a legitimate reason to refuse to be vaccinated. Legitimate reasons are generally limited to medical (supported by documentation) or a sincerely held religious belief. “I don’t believe in vaccines” is not enough to qualify as a sincerely held religious belief.

Second, if there is no legitimate reason for the employee to refuse a vaccine, the employer should clearly communicate the consequences of not becoming fully vaccinated by a specific date. Can that consequence be termination? Absolutely. Can you require the employee to pay for weekly COVID testing? Possibly. Or require unvaccinated employees to pay a surcharge on their health insurance? Yes–at least one major employer is already doing it.

As with any workplace rule, an employer needs to be consistent in its enforcement of the vaccine mandate or risk claims of discrimination.

What complicates the situation is the current labor shortage in a number of industries. Many businesses cannot afford to terminate all vaccine refusers because they already do not have enough workers. But will there be enough COVID-19 testing facilities to meet the needs of employers who need to test unvaccinated employees weekly? That remains to be seen.

This is a very fluid situation, and I will continue to provide updates.

Principal | Email: kjj@wimlaw.com
Kathleen J. Jennings is a principal in the Atlanta office of Wimberly, Lawson, Steckel, Schneider, & Stine, P.C. She defends employers in employment matters, such as sexual harassment, discrimination, Wage and Hour, OSHA, restrictive covenants, and other employment litigation and provides training and counseling to employers in employment matters.

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