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UPDATE:  The COVID-19 Vaccination and Your Workplace.  Know Your Rights!

This article is an update of our January 27, 2021 blog post

As more and more employers implement mandatory vaccination policies for employees, it’s important for employees to understand why the requirement is legal, and what their options are.

Legal challenges to vaccine mandates have not, so far, been successful.  Applications for injunctive relief have been denied, and a federal court in Texas has rejected wrongful termination and public policy arguments.  New York City Municipal Labor Committee, et al. v. City of New York, et. al, Index No. 158368/2021 (New York Co. September 22, 2021); Bridges, et al v. Houston Methodist Hospital, et al., H-21-1774 (SD Tex. June 12, 2021).

This said, employees who are afflicted with disabilities that make it dangerous for them to be vaccinated, as well as employees with sincerely-held religious beliefs, may be able to seek a reasonable accommodation. Each employer has its own process for requesting those accommodations, and determining whether there is a reasonable accommodation available involves an interactive process that requires the cooperation of both employer and employee. Below, we recap several FAQs from our previous vaccination article.

Can my employer demand that I receive the COVID-19 vaccine as a condition of employment?

Yes. Requiring the vaccine is not a medical exam, nor does it seek information about your current health status or impairments. A vaccine mandate does not in itself violate discrimination laws if the mandate allows a case-by-case assessment of whether there a reasonable accommodation could be provided for those who need it.

What if I do not want to be vaccinated because of my disability or because of my sincerely-held religious beliefs?

If your disability or religious beliefs prevent you from being vaccinated, you may request an accommodation from your employer.  When you request an accommodation, your employer needs to determine if you, as an unvaccinated employee, pose a “direct threat” to the health and safety of yourself or others, and whether the threat can be eliminated or reduced by a reasonable accommodation.

If the  assessment results in a finding of direct threat, your employer will try to determine if there is a reasonable accommodation that would allow you to continue to work. This interactive process includes getting information from you and your doctor or religious leader. It is important for employees to cooperate in the interactive process; failure to do so can result in termination. Keep in mind that your employer does not have to provide the specific accommodation that you request. Also, if your employer genuinely cannot come up with a reasonable accommodation, you may be terminated.

Can my employer ask for proof that I have received the COVID-19 vaccine?

Yes. Simply requesting proof of a COVID-19 vaccine is not likely to elicit information about a disability and, as such, is not a disability-related inquiry that would trigger ADA or other health information privacy protections. However, if you have not been vaccinated due to a medical condition, you’ll need to be prepared to request an accommodation, which will require you to provide  medical information to allow the employer to determine what kind of accommodation can be provided.

Do I have ADA protection if my employer administers the COVID-19 vaccine ? 

Yes. The pre-vaccination medical screening questions are likely to elicit information about your health. When these questions are asked by your employer (this might happen in the healthcare context), they meet the ADA definition of a “disability-related” inquiry, and, as a result, you are entitled to ADA protection. The ADA requires that the disability-related screening questions be “job related and consistent with business necessity.” If you are concerned that your employer’s mandatory vaccination program does not meet this threshold, contact an attorney for advice.

Ask A Worker’s Rights Attorney!

Law Books

The Satter Ruhlen Law Firm presents:

 

Ask A Worker’s Rights Attorney!

A webinar for workers.

Thursday, March 11, 2021 at 6:00 pm

 

Do you work in New York?  Do you have a question about your workplace rights?  This is your chance to ask an attorney about it.  One lawyer, six participants, eight minutes per participant (we’ll have a timer!)  Quick answers to your questions about wage and hour violations, discrimination, harassment, whistleblowing, unionizing, non-compete clauses, and other questions like “can they really do that to me?”

CLICK HERE TO REGISTER

Space is limited, so sign up soon!*

Participants will receive a 10% discount on a one-hour consultation with the Satter Ruhlen Law Firm.

Please note that this webinar is for informational purposes and is not to be considered legal advice. Participation in the webinar does not create or imply an attorney-client relationship. If you would like a dedicated one-hour consultation with us, please contact the Satter Ruhlen Law Firm at 315-471-0405 or through our website (https://www.satterlaw.com/contact-us/). We look forward to walking you through your workplace rights.

*Registrations will be screened for employees’ protection.

 

The COVID-19 Vaccination and Your Workplace. Know Your Rights!

Please note that the information contained in this post is for informational purposes and is not to be considered legal advice. This blog post does not create or imply an attorney-client relationship.  If you would like to discuss your particular circumstances with us, please set up a consultation by contacting the Satter Ruhlen Law Firm at 315-471-0405 or through our website (https://www.satterlaw.com/contact-us/).  We look forward to walking you through your workplace rights. 

As COVID-19 vaccines become available, you may find your employer encouraging, or mandating, vaccination to slow the spread of the virus and to keep yourself, co-workers, customers, and the general public, healthy. Below are some scenarios that might come up and an explanation of your rights should you face one of these situations.

Can my employer ask for proof that I have received the COVID-19 vaccine?

Yes. According to Equal Employment Opportunity Commission [“EEOC”] guidance, your employer can ask for proof that you have received the COVID-19 vaccine. Simply requesting proof of a COVID-19 vaccine is not likely to elicit information about a disability and, as such, is not a disability-related inquiry that would trigger Americans with Disabilities Act [“ADA”] (42 USC §12101, et seq.) protections. This means your employer is free to ask if you have been vaccinated and ask for documentation of this. Should your employer ask for proof that you have received the COVID-19 vaccine, make sure you don’t accidentally turn over any additional personal health information. If your employer presses you for information about why you have not received the vaccination and your response requires sharing information about your disability, it may be time to consult an attorney to discuss your rights.

Can my employer demand that I receive the COVID-19 vaccine as a condition of employment?

Yes. According to EEOC guidance, when your employer mandates vaccination for protection against contracting COVID-19, administration of the vaccine is not a medical exam, nor does it seek information about your current health status or impairments. The EEOC’s interpretation allows your employer to demand that you receive the vaccine as a condition of employment. However, if your employer mandates COVID-19 vaccination, you have the right to request a reasonable accommodation if you either cannot, or will not, be vaccinated for medical reasons or sincerely held religious beliefs. If you cannot receive the vaccination and you request an accommodation, keep in mind that your employer does not have to provide the specific accommodation that you request. Also, if your employer genuinely can’t come up with a reasonable accommodation, the likely result is termination.

Do I have ADA protection if my employer administers the COVID-19 vaccine ? 

Yes. The pre-vaccination medical screening questions are likely to elicit information about your disability. According to EEOC guidance, when these questions are asked by your employer (this might happen in the healthcare context), they meet the ADA definition of a “disability-related” inquiry, and, as a result, you are entitled to ADA protection. The ADA requires that the disability-related screening questions be “job related and consistent with business necessity.” If you are concerned that your employer’s mandatory vaccination program does not meet this threshold, contact an attorney for advice.

Can I get fired if my employer requires a COVID-19 vaccination as a condition of employment, and I refuse to do so because of my disability?

You should not be summarily fired for refusing to get vaccinated because of your disability. Instead, your employer should determine if you, as an unvaccinated employee, pose a “direct threat” to the health and safety of yourself or others, and whether the threat can be eliminated or reduced by a reasonable accommodation. If your disability prevents you from being vaccinated and you request an accommodation, keep in mind that your employer does not have to provide the specific accommodation that you request. Also, if your employer genuinely cannot come up with a reasonable accommodation, you may be terminated.

To assess the risk of having you at the workplace unvaccinated, your employer must conduct an individualized assessment to determine whether your presence in the workplace creates a direct threat to yourself or others. According to EEOC guidance, a conclusion that there is a direct threat would include a determination that you, as an unvaccinated individual, will expose others to the virus at the worksite. If the individualized assessment results in a finding of direct threat, your employer should include you in an interactive process to determine if there is a reasonable accommodation that would allow you to continue to work.

As advised by the EEOC, your employer may lawfully exclude you from the physical workplace, but you should not be summarily fired, otherwise disciplined, or suffer retaliation for refusing the vaccination. Instead, your employer should evaluate whether an accommodation, such a teleworking, is an option. If there is no accommodation available, your employer should determine if you are eligible to take leave under federal, state, or local leave laws, including the Family and Medical Leave Act, or under the employer’s leave-of-absence policies.

Can I be fired if my employer requires a COVID-19 vaccination as a condition of employment and I am unwilling to get vaccinated because of my religious beliefs?

You should not be summarily fired if you refuse to get vaccinated based on your religious beliefs. If your religious beliefs prevent you from getting vaccinated, and you request an accommodation, keep in mind that your employer does not have to provide the specific accommodation that you request. Also, if your employer genuinely cannot come up with a reasonable accommodation, the likely result is termination.  

It is important to notify your employer that your religious beliefs prevent you from receiving the COVID-19 vaccine. Given the breadth of the EEOC’s definition of religion, your employer is unlikely to question the nature of your beliefs, however, take note that your religious belief, practice, or observance that prevents you from receiving the vaccine must be sincere.

Once your employer is on notice, you must be provided a reasonable accommodation that allows you to continue work without receiving the vaccination unless the accommodation poses an undue hardship on your employer. Courts have defined “undue hardship” in this context as having more than a de minimis cost or burden on the employer. The determination of whether an accommodation is reasonable often turns on the nature of your job and your employer’s business. Depending on your job duties, your employer might allow you to continue to work wearing additional PPE or have you reassigned to an available position that limits interaction with others, including remote work.

If there is no reasonable accommodation that would allow you, as an unvaccinated employee, to continue your job it would be lawful for the employer to exclude you from the workplace. If there is no accommodation available, your employer should determine if you are eligible to take leave under federal, state, or local leave laws, including the Family and Medical Leave Act, or under the employer’s leave-of-absence policies.

Returning To Work During COVID-19

Please note that the information contained in this post is for informational purposes and is not to be considered legal advice. This blog post does not create or imply an attorney-client relationship.  If you would like to discuss your particular circumstances with us, please set up a consultation by contacting the Satter Ruhlen Law Firm at 315-471-0405 or through our website (https://www.satterlaw.com/contact-us/).  We look forward to walking you through your workplace rights.

It’s scary, or a relief, or a mixture of the two.  The workplace now has cleaning requirements, PPE requirements, screening requirements, and social distancing requirements.  You may have to take a test before you go in.  You may be on staggered shifts with your co-workers, working at the office on some days and at home on other days. There are rules about who can be in different parts of the workplace and under what circumstances.  There may be one-way hallways and closed breakrooms. The rules are changing every day, and it’s hard to know what you’re supposed to do and when.  Here are some frequently asked questions facing employees these days:

  • Can my employer require me to take a COVID-19 test before allowing me to return to work?
    • It depends on the type of test. 
      • Antibody tests: On June 18, 2020 the EEOC updated its guidance in response to new CDC guidance stating that antibody testing should not be used to make decisions about whether an employee should return to work. If an employer is insisting that you take an antibody test in order to determine whether you should be allowed to return to work, call an attorney.
      • Viral tests:  However, a viral test is still an acceptable return to work requirement, as it is job-related and consistent with business necessity.
      • Temperature checks:  An employer can require employees to have their temperature taken prior to entering a workplace.  However, if your employer insists on a particularly invasive temperature-taking method, call an attorney immediately. 
      • Written tests:  Many New York employers are required to have their employees certify that they are symptom free, COVID-free, and have not been in contact with a COVID case in the past 14 days.  This may be a paper you sign when you arrive at the workplace, or the employer may require you to fill out an online form before you even start your commute.  As long as these certifications only ask about your COVID-19 symptoms, whether you are COVID-19 positive, and whether you’ve been exposed, those certifications are allowed. If the employer is asking you other medical questions, call an attorney.
      • Watch this space.  The rules are changing almost weekly.  What was correct last week may not be correct this week.  When in doubt, call an attorney.
    • What’s the difference between an antibody test and a viral test?
      • Antibody tests involve blood work.  They show whether someone has previously had the virus. The EEOC considers an antibody test a “medical examination” under the ADA.  In light of the CDC’s guidance that state that antibody testing can produce false positives, the EEOC has deemed antibody tests as impermissible medical examinations or inquiries for current employees. 
      • Viral tests check the mucus to detect if a person is currently infected and contagious.  Viral tests can be achieved with swabs and are relatively non-invasive.
    • What about a new employer?
      • If you have a conditional offer of employment, the employer is allowed to send you for a medical evaluation to make sure you are fit to perform the essential functions of your job, as long as the employer requires all new employees to undergo testing.  Any medical exams are permitted between a conditional offer of employment and the employee’s start date. 
      • An employer may delay the start date or withdraw the job offer if there is medical evidence that you are currently positive for COVID-19.
  • Can my employer make me wear a face mask?
    • 99% of the time, yes.
    • If you have a disability that precludes you from wearing a face mask, you will need to request a reasonable accommodation, which involves your doctor providing medical documentation of your condition.
    • Be aware that COVID-19 is considered a “direct threat,” so if you have medical documentation showing that you cannot wear a face mask, and your job cannot be done remotely, the likely outcome is termination – not because of your disability, but because the employer can’t risk having you in the workplace without PPE.
  • What if a person in my home is at high risk of serious health problems due to COVID-19?
    • The employer is not required to accommodate you due to the health conditions of a person in your household.
    • If you cannot telework due to needing to care for a high-risk family member, you may be eligible for FMLA, EFMLEA, or New York Paid Family Leave.  Note that these protections require medical documentation showing that the person needs you to provide care – so if the concern is simply that you don’t want to expose a person who is capable of caring for themselves, you might not have much luck getting time off under these statutes.
  • What if I am recovering from COVID-19?
    • COVID-19 is considered a “serious health condition” for purposes of workplace law.  As such, you may have accommodation and leave rights under the ADA, FMLA, EFMLEA, New York State Human Rights Law, and/or New York State Paid Leave [not to be confused with NYS Paid Family Leave, which gives you time off to care for other people]. 
    • If you are recovering from COVID-19 and believe you are ready to return to work, or if you need some more time before you’re ready to return to work, your employer may need to get medical documentation from your health care provider.  The employer is allowed to get information that will enable it to determine whether you can perform the essential functions of your job, whether more leave is warranted, and what, if any, accommodations it might be able to offer you. 
    • If you are concerned about returning to the workplace due to an underlying condition that puts you especially at risk, then it’s appropriate to ask for a reasonable accommodation.  If your work can be done remotely, you may be able to get an accommodation that allows you to do telework.
    • If your job cannot be done remotely, it’s likely the only accommodation an employer can offer is more leave.  Do not ask for indefinite leave – an employer faced with a request for indefinite leave has an easy out for terminating your employment.  Make sure your leave request has a definite end date.  It is more difficult for an employer to deny a request for additional leave as an accommodation when there is a definite end date to the leave.

Reopening is a hopeful development for people who want to “get back to normal.” But, as continually repeated by the media, social media, experts, and politicians, there is no “normal” any more.  You may find yourself returning to a very different workplace than the one you left. The majority of employers are trying to create workplace rules that keep workers safe – but you don’t have to let yourself be exploited in the name of workplace safety.  The above guidance may help you navigate some common workplace pitfalls. When in doubt, call an attorney. 

Be safe.

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