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Can Employers Require Workers To Get Vaccinated For COVID-19?

A dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine was shown to reporters at the Arkansas Department of Health on Dec. 14, 2020 just before the first doses were administered in the state.
Michael Hibblen

An estimated 443,000 additional Arkansans will be eligible to begin getting vaccinated for the coronavirus next week as the state moves into the next phase of inoculations. This group will include educators and those who are over the age of 70.

But many people are hesitant to get vaccinated because of potential side effects. UAMS said last week that among employees surveyed recently, 30% said they were reluctant to get a vaccine. Some people have also wondered if an employer can require them to get a vaccine.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has issued guidance on this matter. Companies can require their employees to get vaccinated as long as federal anti-discrimination laws are followed. People can request exemptions from the vaccine for medical disabilities and religious beliefs.

Companies will have to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act during this process. The employer has to show that anyone who doesn’t get vaccinated could be a direct threat of harming the health or safety of others.

The EEOC states employers should “ordinarily assume that an employee’s request for religious accommodation is based on sincerely held religious belief.” There may be an objection if the employer has a legitimate reason to question the religious nature, belief, practice, or observance. Both exceptions require an employer to provide reasonable accommodation unless it causes undue hardship.

Attorney Devin Bates with the Mitchell Williams law firm in Arkansas says companies can encourage employees to get the vaccine without mandating them.

“I think it’s important, while we do have a lot of cases in Arkansas, employers look at all possible solutions, not just the mandate, but other things they can do as well,” Bates said.

He suggests employers offer educational campaigns about the benefits of getting a vaccine and offer paid time off to allow employees who are vaccinated to recover from any side effects.

Bates says Arkansas doesn’t have any laws regarding an employer mandating a vaccine. But he says it’s important to be aware that this can change.

“There have been some states that have changed the rules a little bit for their specific state, so they might make it a little bit harder, for example, for an employer to mandate the vaccine,” Bates said. “We haven’t seen that in Arkansas yet; however, it’s just important to keep a breath of the law because these things can change.”

Companies can exclude employees from entering the workplace if they refuse to get vaccinated. This does not mean they can automatically terminate the employee. Bates says it will need to determined if any rights that apply under the Equal Employment Opportunity laws or other federal, state, and local authorities prior to termination.

More information on the EEOC guidelines can be found here.

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