Can your employer require a COVID-19 vaccine?

·4 min read

As the economy reopens in different stages across the country, millions of Americans are getting back to work. But not everyone agrees on the safety protocols that employers may require.

Almost two-thirds of unemployed people looking for work would not get a vaccine even if their employer incentivized it, a 2021 Job Seeker Nation Report by Jobvite found. In the same survey, however, nearly half of Americans believe employers should require workers to get the COVID-19 vaccine.

While employees are split on what companies should do, businesses can use their discretion in deciding how and when to implement mandatory vaccine requirements.

WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 06: Darlene Grant (L) receives a dose of the Johnson & Johnson coronavirus vaccine during a walk-up clinic at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts' outdoor Reach area on May 06, 2021 in Washington, DC. Hosted by the District of Columbia Health Department, the event also provided newly vaccinated people with a free beer courtesy of Solace Brewing Co. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Darlene Grant (L) receives a dose of the Johnson & Johnson coronavirus vaccine during a walk-up clinic at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts' outdoor Reach area on May 06, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Can your employer force you to get a vaccine?

Yes, your employer can require vaccinations for workers. But they can also not require them.

“Employers can generally mandate that employees get vaccinated,” said Carrie Hoffman, Partner at Foley & Lardner LLP. “Requiring vaccinations may be more likely in certain industries, such as healthcare or food production.”

Hoffman said employers can require proof — like a vaccination card — since those don’t have confidential information. While birthdates are visible, employers already have this information. For companies that do require vaccination cards, it should be managed by a select group of people.

“Only human resource staff should manage the vaccination records and treat the information as protected health records or medical records subject to state and local confidentiality requirements,” Hoffman said. “Therefore, access to the vaccine card should be limited to those who have access to medical records.”

Has this type of requirement ever happened before?

Before you had a job, you went to school — where vaccinations are often required.

“Schools have obviously mandated vaccines for students prior to the COVID-19 pandemic,” Hoffman said. “For the most part, employers have not mandated vaccines on a wide scale basis, but there have been instances of employers mandating flu vaccinations based on industry, business necessity, and location.”

Depending on your job and industry, there’s a chance you’re already required to stay up-to-date on vaccines. Before COVID, it was part of the job — not necessarily a hot topic.

Are there any ways to skip getting vaccinated if your employer requires it?

WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 06: A roll of stickers for people who received a dose of the Johnson & Johnson coronavirus vaccine during a walk-up clinic at the Kennedy Center's outdoor Reach area on May 06, 2021 in Washington, DC. Hosted by the District of Columbia Health Department, the event also provided newly vaccinated people with a free beer courtesy of Solace Brewing Co. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
A roll of stickers for people who received a dose of the Johnson & Johnson coronavirus vaccine during a walk-up clinic at the Kennedy Center's outdoor Reach area on May 06, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

While your employer may require a vaccination, there are some instances you could avoid getting a shot, according to Hoffman:

  • Under the American Disabilities Act, employers must recognize that employees who have medical conditions that limit their ability to obtain a vaccine cannot be penalized or face adverse employment actions for refusing a vaccine.

  • Under Title VII and similar state nondiscrimination laws, employers are prohibited from taking adverse employment actions against an employee who seeks a religious exemption because of a sincerely held religious belief.

There are ways you can get an exemption for health or religious reasons. Some states already have laws in place regarding vaccinations. For instance, in Oregon, employers can’t force vaccines for healthcare workers. Many states have pending legislation in various forms regarding mandatory COVID-19 vaccinations.

How can you and your employer work out a compromise?

In some cases, employees just need a little help understanding how the vaccines work. Employers may encourage vaccination among employees without a forceful approach, like:

  • Offering PTO for vaccines: If employees are having difficulty finding time to get the vaccine, employers may motivate workers to get their vaccines during working hours. Paid time off means workers get their vaccines without a dock in pay.

  • Sharing information: Put up posters and fliers to educate workers on the benefits of vaccination. Employers may use pamphlets to hand out to employees and, if possible, schedule speakers and webinars to discuss the COVID-19 vaccination.

  • Giving extra compensation: Companies may offer gift cards or bonuses to workers who get vaccinated. Some companies might give additional PTO or vacation days to employees who get their shots.

If you’re not planning to get a vaccination, your employer still needs to make reasonable accommodations for you.

“Employers will need to evaluate the work location and determine if the position can be safely performed by the employee and others working around that individual,” Hoffman said. “Distancing and masking could be sufficient to ensure safety. However, the employer may also need to consider an alternate job or off hours. And allowing remote work, where feasible, may be a continuing accommodation.”

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Dori Zinn is a personal finance journalist based in South Florida. Her work has been featured in the New York Times, Forbes, CNET, Quartz, TIME, and others.

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