Management · April 29, 2021

Can Employers Require the COVID-19 Vaccine?

As COVID-19 vaccinations pick up speed and businesses start to return to steadier operations, you may be wondering: Can employers require the COVID-19 vaccine before employees return to the office? While it may provide peace of mind, it may or may not be legal, depending on your circumstances.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC, COVID-19 vaccines aren't mandated by the Food and Drug Administration, or FDA. However, employers may require that employees receive the COVID-19 vaccination in accordance with their state law.

Under the Occupational Safety and Health Act, or OSHA, employers are legally required to provide a safe workplace, which includes instituting policies to mitigate health and safety risks, including workplace-caused illness. As a result, employers can require the vaccine if they have no other reasonable ways to eliminate that risk, such as providing personal protective equipment, social distancing or remote working arrangements. This may be the case with healthcare workers who are in direct contact with infected patients.

Employee rights

Employees can refuse to comply if they meet one of two exemptions. The first is having a religious belief, practice or observance against being vaccinated. Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, an employer can't require the vaccine unless it creates an undue hardship on their business.

The second exemption is if the employee has a medical reason, which is protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act. For example, someone who has a history of a significant allergic reaction to a vaccine can opt out. Employers may require proof of these exemptions.

One thing to consider, however, is that the vaccines haven't yet received full FDA approval—rather, they've been rolled out under an emergency use authorization. This makes the answer to the question, "Can employers require employees to be vaccinated?" a little unclear. Firing an employee for noncompliance could leave the door open for wrongful termination claims, depending on how a state or federal court rules on potential public policy exceptions to at-will employment and emergency use authorizations.

Creating a vaccine plan

If you plan to require employees to get the vaccine, it can help to communicate your compelling reasons. As the leader, become a role model. Get the shot along with your teams and share your personal reasons for getting vaccinated.

Share information by email or on a break room poster. Emphasize the benefits of the vaccine, such as providing protection against infection for the employee and their loved ones and peace of mind when working with customers.

Also, it can help to explore vaccination options, such as mobile clinics that can come to your workplace to administer shots. Or consider giving employees paid time off for going to a community vaccine location and extra sick days if an employee experiences side effects.

Can employers require the COVID-19 vaccine? In some cases, yes. A better plan, though, may be to encourage employees to get the vaccine. Putting a mandate in place may be risky right now. While you want to keep employees and customers safe, you also want to be sensitive to your employees' feelings and beliefs. Give them time to become more confident with the vaccination process. Workers may be more willing to get the shot as it's more widely deployed.

Remember, even after employees receive the COVID-19 vaccine, it's still important to continue the safety steps you put in place earlier in the pandemic, such as using PPE and social distancing. Getting to a new normal will take time and patience—but we'll all get there. For now, following CDC guidelines may be your best medicine.


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