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The Practical Employer

Mandatory Flu Shots Cost Employer

If you require flu shots for your employees, you must be willing to exempt certain employees.

You may recall that in September I reported on a lawsuit the EEOC filed against a Pennsylvania hospital, alleging that it unlawfully fired six employees after denying their request for a religious exemption from the flu vaccine.WF_WebSite_BlogHeaders-11

How did that case turn out for the employer? Not well. From the EEOC:

Saint Vincent Health Center will pay $300,000 constituting back pay and compensatory damages to a class of six aggrieved former employees … .

In addition to requiring monetary relief and offers of reinstatement for the six employees, the consent decree contains multiple injunctive components. Under the decree, if the Health Center chooses to require employee influenza vaccination as a condition of employment, it must grant exemptions from that requirement to all employees with sincerely held religious beliefs who request exemption from the vaccination on religious grounds unless such exemption poses an undue hardship on the Health Center’s operations, and it must also notify employees of their right to request religious exemption and establish appropriate procedures for considering any such accommodation requests. The decree also requires that when considering requests for religious accommodation, the Health Center must adhere to the definition of “religion” established by Title VII and controlling federal court decisions, a definition that forbids employers from rejecting accommodation requests based on their disagreement with an employee’s belief; their opinion that the belief is unfounded, illogical, or inconsistent in some way; or their conclusion that an employee’s belief is not an official tenet or endorsed teaching of any particular religion or denomination.

Ouch.

What does this mean for employers? I’ll allow Philadelphia District regional attorney, Debra M. Lawrence, who prosecuted the Saint Vincent Health Center case, to explain.

While Title VII does not prohibit health care employers from adopting seasonal flu vaccination requirements for their workers, those requirements, like any other employment rules, are subject to the employer’s Title VII duty to provide reasonable accommodation for religion. In that context, reasonable accommodation means granting religious exemptions to employees with sincerely held religious beliefs against vaccination when such exemptions do not create an undue hardship on the employer’s operations.

In other words, if you require flu shots for your employees (a policy I wholeheartedly endorse), you must be willing to exempt certain employees as an accommodation for their religions (and disabilities, as well).

Jon Hyman is a partner at Meyers, Roman, Friedberg & Lewis in Cleveland. Comment below or email editors@workforce.com. Follow Hyman’s blog at Workforce.com/PracticalEmployer.