Employers could mandate COVID-19 vaccine, according to updated federal guidelines

Dec 30, 2020

The list of people eligible to get the COVID-19 vaccine in New York State continues to expand and now includes urgent care center workers, those administering the vaccine and residents of addiction facilities. Some people could be required to get the COVID-19 vaccine as a condition of their employment.

Unless a person has a legitimate medical or religious reason to opt out, their employer could mandate the inoculation.

"I don't think an anti-vaxxer would have a good claim if they were fired for refusing to take a vaccine," said Professor Stewart Schwab, an employment law scholar at Cornell Law School.

There are updated guidelines from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on employers requiring the COVID-19 vaccination. And there are legal grounds for such a mandate. Employers are required under federal law to provide a safe workplace for all their employees.

"So it's not only the one worker who's refusing to get a vaccine but all the other workers who might be exposed if they have to work with such a person," Schwab said. "The employers do have to make that balance."

Schwab said some individuals with medical conditions protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act or religious beliefs covered by the Title VII of the Civil Rights Act could refuse to submit to a employer-mandated vaccine.

Schwab said he would not be surprised to see some employers face legal challenges over whether they mandate a COVID-19 vaccine and not just from employees who object to a mandate.

"I think some employees will claim 'I don't want to come back to work where a significant number of the workers have not been vaccinated and therefore might be carrying the coronavirus,' " he said.

While employers could legally impose COVID-19 vaccine mandates and fire most employees who refuse, Schwab said they may be better off, in some cases, giving incentives to workers to get inoculated instead.

"I think the human resources professionals often say it's better motivation for a workforce to use carrots rather than sticks," he said.  "This might be a good example of that. I think that's the type of decision that will be up to individual employers."