U.S. Agency Says Workplaces Can Require COVID Vaccines

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The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission said that companies can mandate COVID-19 vaccinations — with some exceptions — for a return to in-person work

As companies and workplaces across the country navigate a safe return for workers as the COVID-19 vaccine rollout continues on a wider scale, the lingering question seems to be whether or not vaccinations can be required for people to enter into public spaces, such as offices and other work spaces.

On Friday, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) said in a statement that US employers can require employers to receive their vaccine before returning to work, adding that their laws “do not prevent an employer from requiring all employees physically entering the workplace to be vaccinated for COVID-19.”

The agency notes that there are some exceptions for people with disabilities or certain health concerns — including pregnancy — or for those who seek religious exemption under the Americans with Disabilities Act and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, respectively. However, those individuals will need to show they’re not posing “an undue hardship on the operation of the employer’s business” by not receiving a vaccine.

“Employers should keep in mind that because some individuals or demographic groups may face greater barriers to receiving a COVID-19 vaccination than others, some employees may be more likely to be negatively impacted by a vaccination requirement,” the statement notes.

Another interesting note: Employers can encourage workers to get vaccinated by offering incentives to those who do, as long as they’re not being “coercive.” The agency wrote, “Because vaccinations require employees to answer pre-vaccination disability-related screening questions, a very large incentive could make employees feel pressured to disclose protected medical information.” But generally speaking, incentives for those who get the jab — including money, paid time off, of the ability to go mask-free at work — are not prohibited under federal law, as long as they’re not illegal.

The new guidance brings up plenty of legal gray areas, as experts pointed out to both the New York Times and CBS News. Regarding the incentive for vaccinated workers to ditch their masks, employee benefits lawyer Jessica Kuester told the NYT, “Are you really going to go around and, when you see an employee without a mask, are you going to run back to H.R. and verify that that person really was fully vaccinated?”

Of the overall murkiness of the new guidance, employment attorney Helen Rella told CBS News, “What is ‘coercive’ is unclear because, just as with anything else, one person’s view of what is a coercive incentive is not the same as another person’s. You might find an incentive of $100 coercive and another person might find an incentive of $10,000 coercive. That’s where the door is left open [where] we don’t have the detailed guidance we were hoping to receive.”

As with everything else COVID-related, it seems only time will tell where the chips may fall, but it’s clear that employers do have legal grounds to require the vast majority of workers to get vaccinated before heading back to their desks.