While the memories of lockdowns and quarantines may be falling into our not-so-distant memories, the COVID-19 pandemic persists. Employers may still be hesitant to bring remote workers back into the office, but the fact remains that more and more employers are opening their doors back up to workers. Returning to work in a COVID-19 world remains a bit complicated on a number of levels. Employers and employees alike may have questions about requirements and protocol to help ensure that everyone remains as safe and healthy as possible in the workplace. Many employees are likely to wonder whether an employer can require a COVID-19 vaccine before an employee comes back to work. The answer is, however, that it depends.
Can an Employer Require a COVID-19 Vaccine Before an Employee Comes Back to Work?
While it may not be true in all circumstances, it remains generally true that an employer can require an employee to get a COVID-19 vaccine prior to returning to work. Both the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, at the federal level, and the State of New Jersey have issued guidance stating as such. The guidance, in sum, states that employers may require employees to be vaccinated prior to returning to work and may require an employee to furnish proof of vaccination prior to returning to work. There are some limited exceptions to this.
While employers may require employees to get the COVID-19 vaccine, exceptions remain that an employer cannot have such a requirement if:
- The employee has a disability that prevents them from getting the vaccine;
- The employee is pregnant or breastfeeding and your doctor has specifically advised you not to get the vaccine at this time; or
- The employee has a sincerely held religious belief, practice, or observance that prevents them from getting the vaccine.
If an employee asserts that any of these exceptions applies to them, then the employer is entitled to take reasonable measures to confirm that the employee does, in fact, fall into one of these exceptions. For instance, an employer may require documentation from the employee’s physician confirming that they advised the employee not to get the vaccine while pregnant or breastfeeding. Alternatively, an employer may request documentation from the employee’s doctor which confirms that the employee has a disability preventing them from getting the vaccine. An employer may also question an employee about any religious beliefs or practices which prevent them from getting vaccinated in order to confirm the sincerity of such beliefs.
If you do fall into one of the exceptions and this is confirmed, an employer is required to provide you with reasonable accommodations which will allow you to continue to work without being vaccinated. In many cases, this may look like you continuing to work remotely. It may mean that you are removed from a shared workspace to have more sectioned off work room. The accommodation must balance the employee’s health and safety with that of the rest of the workplace without putting an undue burden on the employer.