Can you Require Employees to Get the COVID Vaccine?

The COVID vaccine is in full swing and is fully available in every state in the U.S., but there are still plenty of people who are “vaccine hesitant” or are unsure whether they should get it or not. For manufacturers and businesses where remote work isn’t possible, the question is whether a company can require employees to get the COVID vaccine when they’re unwilling to do so.

A couple of years ago, I talked about how companies had a legitimate right to terminate an employee when they don’t like what that employee is saying about the company on social media. That is, I believe a company should be able to fire an employee who is badmouthing them, just like they have the right to fire someone who says or does racist or sexist things in public.

Photo of a vaccine and syringe. In some cases, employers CAN require their workers to get a COVID vaccine.For one thing, many companies are based in right-to-work states, which means there are no real union protections, and a company can fire an employee for any reason, including if they post something that denigrates the employer on social media.

When I was in charge, the line I drew in the sand was just basic common sense. If you’re going to post anything on social media, and it has anything to do with the enterprise, then the enterprise has got the right to take action.

I was always clear and upfront with employees: I said, “Yes, I will monitor social media.” It’s not fair to weaponize social media to vent your spleen or to otherwise hurt other individuals, your colleagues, or even your employer.

I also talked about whether a company could have a say in an employee’s health and exercise programs.

That’s a bit tougher. There’s a definite line you can’t cross as an employer, like “You can only have X number of children” or “You can’t eat this kind of food any longer.” You can’t create rules about smoking, eating fried foods, or exercising because that’s a person’s private life.

But we could encourage positive behavior and reward people for practicing it. So we instituted a wellness program at the company that included things like getting bloodwork done and providing free mammograms for our female associates.

But Could We Have Required COVID Vaccinations?

Things are a little trickier when it comes to the vaccine though. We’re a lot closer to that line you can’t cross, because you’re starting to infringe on a person’s religion or deeply held civic beliefs. Whether you agree with them or not, you have to at least respect them enough because you would want the same level of respect if the tables were turned.

Rachel Williamson, an HR advisor, wrote in Industry Week, that you as an employer actually can require employees to get the COVID vaccine.

The short answer is yes, you can: If that’s what you deem to be the best route for your organization. For example, if you manufacture medical supplies or you’re in industrial food prep, you may feel it’s necessary to ensure the safety of your employees and the end-user of your product.

From a legal standpoint, you can require the vaccine as a condition of employment based on previous regulations established by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). In its 2009 guidance on pandemic preparedness, the EEOC stated that employers can require workers to get the flu vaccine, which laid the groundwork for subsequent vaccines designed to protect American workers.

In other words, you can require the vaccine, but it can be a bit of a struggle. For one thing, says Williamson, it’s critical that you openly communicate with your associates so they understand your reasons for requiring the vaccine — “that their health and safety is paramount.”

But if an employee refuses or is unable to take the vaccine — because of personal beliefs; medical or disability-related reasons; religious reasons; or just fear or disagreement with vaccinations — you can choose to provide “reasonable accommodations” to anyone in these four categories

But you’re only required to provide those accommodations to people who can’t take it because of medical or disability-related reasons, or if they have sincerely held religious beliefs.

That’s because people are protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Some of the reasonable accommodations can include continuing to require masks and PPE; providing a workstation separate from the others; moving the employee to one that doesn’t deal with people; offering a leave of absence under FMLA or ADA. There may also be state-specific leaves available, paid or unpaid, you could offer.

At the federal level, the EEOC and the CDC support vaccinations, and you can legally require most of your employees to get vaccinations, it’s a smarter idea to be sensitive to your employees’ concerns and fears.

Communicate with them, share your reasoning for requiring the vaccines, and make accommodations where they are legally required. Even as (and because) you’re supposed to create a safe working environment for all your employees, you do have to keep your legally exempt non-vaccinated employees safe.

But the bottom line is, whether you choose to require or not require vaccinations, put your associates first. Show them loyalty and concern, and they’ll repay you with their own loyalty.

I’ve been a manufacturing executive, as well as a sales and marketing professional, for a few decades. Now I help companies turn around their own business, including pivoting within their industry. If you would like more information, please visit my website and connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn.

Photo credit: Asian Development Bank (Flickr, Creative Commons 2.0)

Author: David Marshall
I’ve been a manufacturing executive, as well as a sales and marketing professional, for a few decades. Now I help companies turn around their own business. If you would like more information, please visit my website and connect with me on Twitter or LinkedIn.