Ever since a federal judge in Texas upheld a workplace COVID-19 vaccine mandate back in June, the consensus among judges and lawyers was that employers could require workers to get a COVID-19 shot as a condition of employment.
But, recently, the State of New York was accused of taking its vaccine mandate for hospital and nursing home staff to the next level.
In September, 17 healthcare workers employed in New York State, all of whom object to the existing COVID-19 on religious grounds, sued. They sought to enjoin enforcement of the vaccine mandate “to the extent it categorically requires health care employers to deny or revoke religious exemptions from COVID-19 vaccination mandates.”
The original mandate allowed employees with sincerely-held religious beliefs to seek reasonable accommodations. But, less than a week later, New York State’s Public Health & Health Planning Council eliminated the religious exemption.
So lawyers got involved and, yada yada yada, a NY federal court issued a preliminary injunction to stop enforcement of the revised rule.
I’m going to backtrack because I yada yada’d over the best part. That is, the court analyzed Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and concluded that, under certain circumstances, Title VII “requires otherwise-neutral policies to give way to the need for an accommodation.”
While the State argued that Title VII does not require a religious exemption — they’re right — their argument missed the mark. That is, Title VII still requires employers to make a reasonable accommodation as long as the employee can provide one without undue hardship.
Thus, allowing healthcare workers to work unvaccinated for COVID-19 may cause undue hardship. But, you have to at least allow for the possibility of providing a religious (or disability) accommodation. And since the plain language of the NY mandate precluded that, the court enjoined it.
The same rules apply in your workplace. Most private employers can, but do not have to, require employees to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19. But, if your business does opt to mandate, it must be subject to accommodation for health and religious reasons.